Canberra coughs up AU$2.4b health package to fight COVID-19

The prime minister says medical experts have been preparing for an event like this for years and this is just the next step up in Australia's plan.

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The Australian government has made AU$2.4 billion available to fight the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak.

Despite reports of Australian doctors expressing concerns that the nation is ill-prepared in protecting against the spread of COVID-19, the message coming from Canberra is that medical experts have been preparing for an event like this for years, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison saying the billion-dollar fund "is the next step up in Australia's plan".

"Australia isn't immune but with this AU$2.4 billion boost we're as well prepared as any country in the world," Morrison said, as the number of positive cases in Australia tipped over 110.

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"This package is about preventing and treating coronavirus in the coming weeks."

The package aims to provide support across primary care, aged care, hospitals, research, and the national medical stockpile.

"Our government, alongside the country's leading medical experts, is working around the clock to ensure we have the right tools, information, and resources to keep Australians safe," Morrison said.

Under the banner of primary care, AU$100 million will be used to fund a new Medicare service for people in home isolation or quarantine, as a result of coronavirus.

This will allow them to receive health consultations via the phone or video, such as through FaceTime or Skype.

"We are ensuring people can access essential care in a way that reduces their potential exposure to infection. This includes support for telehealth, primary care, and medical supplies," Minister for Health Greg Hunt said.

The telehealth consultation services will be provided by GPs, specialists, nurses, and mental health and allied health workers, and will also be available under Medicare for people aged over 70, people with chronic diseases, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged over 50, people who are immunocompromised, those that are pregnant, and new parents with babies.

The government hopes the telehealth service will help contain the spread of the virus.

These services will be bulk-billed at no cost to patients and will be available from 13 March 2020.

See also: Coronavirus and COVID-19: Everything you need to know (CNET)

AU$25 million will also be used to fund home medicines services, allowing patients to have PBS (Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme) prescriptions filled online or remotely, and have the medicines delivered.

The government will make this service available for people in home isolation and for vulnerable patient groups. All pharmacies with e-prescribing will be eligible to participate in the home medicines services.

The rollout of electronic prescribing across Australia, meanwhile, will get AU$5 million to fast-track the service.

The national triage phone line will be expanded with an additional AU$50.7 million in funding to provide a 24/7 service that patients can access for advice.

Elsewhere, where primary care is concerned, AU$58.7 million will be provided to support people living and working in remote locations.

The government is also investing AU$206.7 million for up to 100 dedicated respiratory clinics, which have been touted as one-stop shops for people who are concerned that they may have the virus. The clinics allow people to be tested and isolated from other patients.

There will also be a dedicated Medicare-funded and bulk billed pathology test for COVID-19, which is expected to cost AU$170.2 million. Funding will also be provided for pathology testing conducted in aged care facilities.

Under the banner of research, AU$30 million from the Medical Research Future Fund has been allocated for vaccine, anti-viral, and respiratory medicine research.

The government expects this will enable Australian researchers to "be at the forefront of the drive to develop both treatments and a vaccine".

The aged care sector will receive AU$101.2 million to educate and train aged care workers in infection control and enable aged care providers to hire extra nurses and residential and home care staff.

The Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission will also receive additional funding of AU$30 million to work with providers on improving infection control.

With the government having already announced AU$500 million in funding for the states and territories for COVID-19, on Wednesday, it said it would pay for half of all additional costs incurred by states and territories in diagnosing and treating patients with COVID-19, or those suspected of having the disease, as part of efforts to minimise the spread of the disease.

This will be provided on a 50-50 basis for state health COVID-19 activities both within and outside hospitals.

AU$1.1 billion will be used to provide patients and critical health care staff with face masks and other protective equipment such as surgical gowns, goggles, and hand sanitiser. This funding will also be used to purchase antibiotics and antivirals for the National Medical Stockpile.

A new national communications campaign, meanwhile, will see AU$30 million spent on providing people with "practical advice on how they can play their part in containing the virus and staying healthy". 

It will also include the development of an app.

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