PEOPLE with severe mental disorders will be victims of a government cap on capacity to employ mental health nurses in primary health care, says the chief executive of the Australian College of Mental Health Nurses.
While more than $35 million was allocated to the national Mental Health Nurse Incentive Program for 2012-13, estimates by the Department of Health reveal the budget for the program will not be able to service any increased demand.
The program funds community organisations to pay nurses to work with people with severe mental disorders, and is the only program of its type in the country.
ACMHN chief executive Professor Kim Ryan said a cap on numbers was contradictory to the governemnt's plans to grow the number of nurses in primary health care.
A letter from a senior public servant revealed no more health organisations or nurses would be able to access the program, which was already full.
The letter reveals the $16.5 million allocated in the 2011-12 budget was meant to keep services available to 36,000 people with mental health problems, but ended up being used by more than 40,000 people.
"Based on current uptake, the annual number of people receiving a service may exceed 47,000 for the 2011-12 financial year," the letter reads.
The additional funding of $16.5 million should maintain the existing service levels, but no more organisations or nurses can join the program.
"Maintaining MHNIP services at 2011-12 levels means that from 9 May 2012 no new organisations or nurses can join the program unless existing participants leave."
But Prof Ryan said the way the program was designed meant patients needed continued care, and natural attrition to allow for new nurses to join was not possible.
She also said an external evaluation of the program, which was meant to inform this year's budget decisions, had not yet been released.
"I can understand the economic climate we are currently in, and the desire to get the budget to surplus," Prof Ryan said.
"But the Prime Minister and Health Minister have been out there talking about how this is a battlers budget, a fair go budget.
"We're talking about a program to help people with severe and complex long-term mental health problems.
"When you've got a program that has not been expanded enough to service demand - surely these are some of the people who most need a fair go."
Prof Ryan said the college knew the program was already working, and prevented "people ending up in emergency departments".
"The concern is that not increasing this program is undermining the government's own efforts under the National Mental Health Reform," she said.
"They've said this is one their top priorities for this term, but if it's a top priority, then why are they cutting the funding?"
Minister for Mental Health Mark Butler said the extra money in the budget would ensure people can continue to get the service.
"This funding will ensure that people currently in the program continue to receive the care and support that they need," he said.
"An evaluation of the program's effectiveness is underway and will help determine funding needs in future years.
The evaluation is due to report towards the end of 2012.
"In addition, people living with severe mental illness can continue to be referred by their GP to Medicare subsidies consultant psychiatry services and community mental health services including the Day to Day Living and Personal Helpers and Mentors Programs which target people with severe mental illness."