Proposed changes to health funding in Australia’s 2014 Commonwealth Budget include direct costs (“co-payments”) to patients every time they see their GP or have pathology done, and an increase in the cost of prescribed medications. This extra revenue will be put towards medical research. Does the end justify the
For some people with schizophrenia the only medication that keeps them well enough to stay out of hospital is clozapine. Clozapine was initially introduced in the early 1970s but was withdrawn within a few years because some people died while taking it. Although clozapine is the only effective antipsychotic for some people with schizophrenia, about 1% of those who take clozapine will develop agranulocytosis (a dangerous drop in white blood cells, especially neutrophils – the most abundant type of white blood cells). Left unrecognised and unmanaged agranulocytosis leaves people very susceptible to serious infections and, as happened back in the 1970s, can even lead to death.
Schizophrenia is a bugger of an illness. Onset of symptoms is nearly always in teenage years or early twenties. Schizophrenia is often misrepresented as split personality – that’s wrong – it infers that a person can choose or control their symptoms. The word schizophrenia has it’s roots in the Greek language, translated it means split mind – people do not choose to have a split mind. Symptoms vary between individuals, but very often people with schizophrenia will experience thought disorder (non-sequential, disorganised, confused thinking), delusions (beliefs, often unsettling and difficult to understand, that are not shared by others) and auditory hallucinations (sounds or voices that nobody else can hear, but which sound and feel very real to the individual experiencing them). If these symptoms are intense or frequent they can really make a mess of the individual’s ability to function successfully in school, university or the workplace. Consequently people with schizophrenia are over-represented amongst the unemployed and homeless.
Because schizophrenia is such a bugger of an illness and clozapine can be so effective at dampening-down the symptoms, in the early 1990s clozapine was made available again with some very strict protocols in place to keep the people taking it safer from serious side effects. When starting on clozapine blood tests are taken every week to check that the neutrophils/white blood cell counts don’t drop. It is built-in to the infrastucture of clozapine management – you can’t get a prescription until you’ve had a blood test and the doctor checks it against previous blood tests. If there are any problems with the blood tests the doctor will stop prescribing clozapine – no ifs, ands or buts. For about 1% of people the risk of agranulocytosis will outweigh the benefits of staying on clozapine.
For the person with schizophrenia taking clozapine this regular regime of blood tests, visiting the GP and getting a short-term prescription (there are no repeat prescriptions for clozapine) might be the difference between being in hospital and being at home, or (sometimes) being homeless and being at home. Once initial treatment is established, safe management of clozapine requires frequent blood tests, a new prescription every 4 weeks and regular visits to the GP.
The proposed budget changes include a $7 payment to see the GP, $7 fee for out-of-hospital pathology, and an additional $5 for each prescription medication. What are the benefits of making schizophrenia treatment more expensive? Are there any foreseeable problems?
We are being told by our government that Australia’s universal health coverage is not under threat. $7 to visit a GP costs the same as two beers says our treasurer. What a sneering, mean thing to say.
People with schizophrenia, like people with diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and other enduring illnesses, are already at a social and financial disadvantage. For the individual with schizophrenia whenever there is an increased intensity or frequency of delusions, auditory hallucinations and disordered thoughts they suffer terrible distress. The people who love and care for them share in this distress. Often an expensive hospital admission for a few weeks is required to bring the symptoms back under control and sort-out the social problems that a period of being out of touch with reality can cause: unpaid bills and rent may lead to loss of accommodation; neighbours, friends and family may be feeling uncomfortable having you home again; your self care and physical health may have deteriorated; your tobacco, alcohol and drug use may have increased; you may have come to the attention of the police.
Do the benefits of co-payments really outweigh the risks?
On Monday 19th May 2014 Joe Hockey, Australia’s Treasurer, will be appearing on Q&A. I have submitted this two-part question:
You may have a question of your own for Mr Hockey, if so go to www.abc.net.au/tv/qanda
CoPayStories provides an avenue for patients and health professionals to share their perspective on the proposed GP co-payment – visit the website www.copaystories.com.au and/or follow @CoPayStories on Twitter.
For the purpose of this argument I’ve cited only one side-effect of one medication for one illness. I am aware that clozapine has more than one side-effect, and there are illnesses other than schizophrenia that require regular pathology, GP visits and prescriptions.
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Paul McNamara, 17th May 2014
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