30 September 2022

End to free Rapid Antigen Tests a burden for many

| Fi Peel
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Rapid Antigen Test (RAT)

Rapid Antigen Tests (RAT) are no longer provided to concession card holders for free. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

Many in the community have suffered financial whiplash with the end of pharmacy distribution of free Rapid Antigen Tests to concession card holders.

The COVID-19 Rapid Test Concessional Access (CRTCA) program, introduced in January, was designed to “ensure equitable access to Rapid Antigen Tests in the community”.

Extended until 31 July, it was a measure designed to combat the price gouging that had quickly arisen after RATs first hit retail shelves in December 2021.

Recently I learned of an instance where a pharmacist apologised to an NDIS participant and their support worker, explaining that the government had stopped the program. The participant then left the pharmacy overwhelmed by the unexpected news that they now had to factor in the cost of buying RATs to a budget already stretched by the increasing rise in cost of living expenses.

The NDIS worker was equally frustrated and exasperated.

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The over-the-counter cost of a five pack of nasal swab RATs, previously available under the CRTCA program, is about $60. When the maximum fortnightly rate of the Disability Support pension is $936.80 is doubled to indicate a monthly income, the cost of purchasing RATs represents three per cent of this total income.

The emotional impact is justifiably palpable in situations such as these.

As a writer and communicator working with lived experience communities, the lack of easily available information on alternative low income solutions seems counterintuitive to common sense.

During COVID we were all pushed online to find information and yet there was never any one centralized point designed with stressed-out community members in mind.

The changing nature of the sociopolitical landscape which promises help via political PR machines but then only provides certain formats for the distribution of accurate information, regarding access to resources that are desperately needed by many, does nothing to alleviate social tension or human distress.

Since moving to Canberra right before the second ACT lockdown, I have heard many bemoan the difficultly of navigating ACT Government websites, and I understand why. Website designs which bombard people with block textual information but no simple answers to basic questions, then drive people to pick up the phone and engage with already overburdened call centres, foster further uncertainty.

READ ALSO COVID-19 walk-in clinic on the move as surge centre’s future still up for debate

When the response from call centre operators is: “I’m not sure but I think maybe…” or “you can apparently also get them at…” and then another provider denies this source of information when you call to confirm, it begs the question of why the ACT Health Promotions department appears to have dropped the ball on this essential issue?

When a government source reveals that they “ran a really big promotional push a few weeks back”, the question then extends from why to who, what and how. Who did you target? What did you tell them? How did you tell them?

People are still unaware of where to access these resources, pharmacists are unaware of alternate referral sources, and web searches are not saturating with information. Despite having been led up hill and down dale in the pursuit of accurate information which should have been easily accessible, here are the knowns regarding equitable access to RATs for those who cannot otherwise afford them:

NDIS participants:
The NDIS website reveals that NDIS participants can claim both PPE and RATs as reasonable and necessary items for purchase under core supports. This is assuming that participants have the money upfront to buy their health and safety supplies and wait for reimbursement. Last updated on 7 September 2022, the NDIA acknowledges that the situation is subject to further development and states it “will continue to monitor current arrangements and advise of any further changes”. If in doubt, check back with the page link for updates to information.

Concession Card Holders:
ACT Libraries are distributing free RATs for concession card holders. Anyone with a government concession card can present at their local ACT library (except for the ACT Heritage Library) and collect three RATs at a time. An ACT Libraries contact stated that there is currently no cap on the number of times people can present to collect RATs at this stage, the only limitation is the amount available – three per visit.

With the ACT Cabinet Office meeting to decide how to further meet this ongoing need within the Territory, as always in these post-pandemic times, a “watch this space” caveat applies.

Fi Peel is a lived experience recovery collaborator and mental health reform advocate working under a sometimes model. They are sometimes peer worker; sometimes supervisor; sometimes mentor, sometimes co-designer; sometimes policy advisor and consumer academic; sometimes executive producer and podcast host; sometimes writer; sometimes theatre-maker; and sometimes performer. They are also the ACT Lived Experience Australia Advisory Forum Coordinator.

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