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Department dashes hopes of telehealth Medicare coverage 

Efforts to extend Medicare coverage for optometry telehealth services during COVID-19 have taken a blow after the Department of Health advised Optometry Australia (OA) it was unlikely to proceed with the proposal.

Even as optometrists begin to return to pre-pandemic levels of care, OA CEO Ms Lyn Brodie said there was still a place for the technology, particularly for patients who are unable to leave their home for face-to-face optometric care.

Since late March, OA has presented a united front with Specsavers, Luxottica and Diabetes Australia to lobby for telehealth-related modifications to existing Medicare item numbers 10916 and 10918. All were hopeful of a positive response.

However, after discussions with health officials, Brodie said it was now unlikely to occur.

“Following a recent meeting with the Department of Health, we were disappointed to learn that telehealth optometry services are unlikely to be covered via the temporary Medicare extension during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Brodie told Insight.

“We will continue to look for opportunities to explore innovative modes of practice that will keep optometrists supporting patients.”

Brodie said there remains a use for telehealth, despite most practices retuning to full levels of service during the past month and a half.

“Telehealth provides the connection between a patient and their health professional without the need for an in-practice consultation,” she said.

“Some patients are still practicing caution with regard to limiting any potential exposure to COVID-19, and telehealth can enable them to access the optometric care they need. More broadly, the use of telehealth during the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that it can support timely access to care for patients unable to access in-person care.”

Brodie said many primary healthcare disciplines are exploring whether telehealth may be able to be used in the long term to enhance patient access, especially in rural and remote areas, and complement established systems of care.

“It is appropriate for optometry to also make these considerations,” she added.

Luxottica-owned OPSM has been providing free telehealth services, despite the lack of Medicare coverage.

Last month, OPSM’s director of eyecare and community for Australia and New Zealand Mr Peter Murphy revealed its free telehealth service had had a significant impact.

“We have already seen some instances of serious eye health conditions where our optometrists have been able to intervene and saved someone’s sight thanks to a remote video consultation,” he said at the time.

“In the long term, even after the current health emergency has subsided, we see tele-optometry and telehealth remaining a crucial solution for those whom maybe homebound, or unable to visit one of our stores for a variety of reasons, and hence we expect the conversations on this topic to continue.”

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