Canberra Day 94

[Wednesday 14th December]

Well today was a terrible day career-wise, nothing fatal but nothing fun, so it’s a good thing that I’m in Canberra with a licence to explore and enjoy new experiences.

I’m having some issues with the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA) that manages the registration of 14 different health professionals, including pharmacists. Previously we had our own pharmacy board, but in 2010 several boards were amalgamated and now we are managed jointly. This new organisation, AHPRA, manages our annual registration including our compulsory continuing professional development (CPD) requirements, whilst another organisation manages the regulation of pharmacies and pharmacy departments. All very boring and tedious, until your annual registration comes up against a problem. In my case a CPD problem. Each year between October 1st and September 30th, every registered pharmacist in Australia now has to achieve 40 hours of CPD to qualify to be re-registered. After the amalgamation the amount of CPD to be achieved began as 20 hours and increased over a couple of years. Its pretty standard now, and pretty achievable if you’re working, which is the point; to keep you up to date.

I first went on sick leave in March 2014 and stayed on sick leave for several months before I dragged my reluctant body back to work only part time for 6 weeks in September/October that year to complete my contract at the Alfred, in the vain hope that I would build up professional fitness quick enough to convince my workplace that I was fit and well to work and be re-hired. I was desperately hoping to stay on because I loved that job. It was a joke looking at it now; there was no way I was even fit for the very part time work I was doing then let alone more. But the point being, between October 1st 2013 and September 30th 2014, the annual CPD year, I worked 6 months and work generates CPD as does starting a new job as does changing positions within a job all of which applied to me. So even at the 6 month mark when I got sick I had oodles of CPD numbering probably around 50 or 60 hours. So I finished my feeble 6 weeks in dispensary, ended my contract and went back to bed.

By the time I got going again and went back to work, it was July of 2015. Already up to 9 out of 12 months of the CPD year, and to be honest, to this point CPD hadn’t even crossed my mind! A little teensy nervous breakdown and the associated issues had occupied the major part of my brain for months on end and work had just gone away. Even now returning to work I was conscious of the need to get up to date with the many new drugs and devices that had hit the market in the last year and a bit, but I hadn’t thought particularly of my CPD requirements with respect to my registration. I did all the required new job CPD, I did study on things that were relevant, I recorded it all and never really thought of whether I was making the 40 hour amount. Which is unfortunate, because I didn’t make it! I got 25 hours, not 40.

And there is no clause for people on sick leave. Or for people not working. You’re either practising or not practising. So, in November 2015 when I was re-registering as a pharmacist and got to the compulsory question about whether I had completed 40 hours in the previous year, I had to answer in the negative as in I did NOT meet the CPD requirements. And I won’t say that all hell broke loose, but all kinds of official pharmacy correspondence started flying around the web and through the postal service, and today is just another step in the painful process that is rectifying the situation! I’m not complaining about having to fix this up; I should have to. I’m a health professional and patients need to be sure of me being up to date and on top of the latest drugs and professional practice. I’m just complaining about the amazing bureaucracy that prevails in these matters! It is not easy to show that you have done your best to fix it, that you’ve learnt your lesson, and that you’ll do better in the future. Especially if you’re out of work again, because things just don’t come up when you’re not dispensing and reviewing medications on a daily basis. You have to actively look for things, and it’s just harder. But it’s part of my commitment and I have to just get on with it. So I’m off to send yet another email, which will probably get yet another “out of office” reply, followed by an actual reply sometime in the next two weeks or so telling me that there’s yet another technicality that I haven’t met because I was never told about it, followed by another email from me phrased very conservatively despite my inner rage and so on. You get the drill!

So there’s that, and following that the awful words “we’re terminating you”!! Seriously?! I went back to work officially in June 2015 with a fixed term 9 month contract. I guess I always assumed that there would be a possibility for extension at the end, assuming they liked me and my work was up to scratch etc. But no, despite putting me through two traditional interviews and a non traditional observation of practice interview I was never successful in getting an extension. So I was told I would be put on the casual list and they’d call me, which they never have but that suited me lately being in Canberra and all. So now out of the blue I get a call to say sorry, it’s just a HR thing but because you haven’t worked for us in 3 months we have to terminate you!! I’m sorry, what?! I’m costing you zip, I’m (usually) a resource available at short notice a 4 minute walk away, and if this was always a HR thing, why didn’t you just say goodbye at the end of my contract, instead of giving me an impression that I’d be called up to work?? So when I get back I have to return my keys and it’s all over. Well what a wake up!! Could this day get worse for my career?

Luckily I have good things planned so let’s off to the High Court to observe other people getting the rough end of the stick, potentially. I won’t pretend to understand the case that was being argued but the solemnity and the ceremony of it all was very impressive and the two counsels arguing were humorous in their own way, especially one who referred to “my learned friend” at the beginning or end of every sentence! I’m pretty sure even the 5 judges were smiling under their wigs. A bit of light relief, and I’m glad that becoming a lawyer was never on my list. I took my fill then left, remembering to pause and bow to the judges on my way out!

And now to really flush all that career mess out of my system!! I’ve been looking forward to this christmas concert by Igitur Nos at the National Library for a couple of weeks now. Turns out it wasn’t quite what I was expecting…more classical music, Latin and high brow Christmas songs than your typical carols. But it was pretty nice. Then a drive by a few places of interest: the historical and very pink Calthorpes House, and a few embassies.

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Lucky I have a lovely catch up with a friend after lunch. Nothing so soothing as hanging out with a friendly face and chatting away the afternoon. A super cute little baby helps just a little bit too! Happy day…in the end.

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Before I post this week’s missive I just want to say a huge thank you to each and every one of you who stopped by my little blog last week and read my disturbed thoughts. I was very much of two minds whether to post anything so personal and dark, but you all were so faithful in reading what I wrote, and those who contacted me were so kind that you restored my faith in writing the whole ugly truth. I love you all, and watching the stats rise was such an enormous encouragement to me! THANK YOU!

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Written late April 2016 after my latest work contract ended; updated 20th June 2016.

“I worked my a*& off to get back, really back; harder than I’ve worked at anything my whole life. ” – Detective Marcus Bell, Elementary

…”because there’s nothing like getting back for getting better” – current WorkSafe Victoria Return To Work campaign

Getting back; it’s what everyone recommends for getting better. I resisted it for a long while in my original sick leave but in the end I found that it was true! Occupation, purpose, time consuming work; it all helps to develop an inner feeling of being better, getting  back to normal.

But, as my deepest darkest suspicions have been humming a tune all along, it’s not enough. I’m not enough. My efforts are not enough. It was a dark moment! Or two…

There have been tears, and more tears; it was so disappointing!

More doubt, more undermining of my confidence that was fickle at best, more breaking through my denial of recovery to let the truth of ongoing illness in. Then there are moments of resolution, mostly led by my husband’s sensible, problem solving , kind voice where I decide actually I will be okay; I’ll be okay, I’ll figure it out.

It’s not what I want; I think that’s obvious. If I could do anything to change it I would. I tried to see if there wasn’t any way around this decision to relieve me of my job by not renewing my contract. I spoke with the powers that be reminding them of my loyalty, commitment, long term intentions and proximity, for goodness sake, if nothing else! But I can’t fight my way out of this. Maybe I have to let it be.

Oh that so does not sit well with me. But a good friend reminds me that maybe that’s the point; maybe this is a long term play for my strength of character not a short term game for my own convenience! Ahhhh…it’s hard to swallow but maybe I need that.

So here’s the situation: the workplace I was working in when I got sick doesn’t have any obligation to me, to rehabilitate me. I was working there on a one year contract when I got sick at the half way point, and wasn’t able to return to work for any more than two mornings a week in the last 6 weeks of the contract. And that was just a desperate scramble to try to be okay enough to stay on there. I was utterly unable physically, and not even slightly ready mentally to apply for a new full time contract, the only way that I could’ve stayed on. So the contract, and with it, the obligation, ended and I went back to bed. Not what I wanted, but I couldn’t do anything about it; I just wasn’t in a state to change things. It was what it was.

So then, after another 9 months at home, I started back at work with a short term contract at the next place that would take me. They also have no obligation to me, other than to offer the same support that they would offer any other employee. They took me on when I was returning to work; they knew that, and made some allowance. But it’s not their fault, not their duty. No special exemption or workplace mentors; no keeping a place for  while me while I convalesce and struggle to get back into the swing of things. You have to compete with every other well person and that’s just how it is. And when it’s over, it’s over!

Done                     3rd May 2016

I’m overwhelmed, I’m in dismay,

The job I had, the work, the pay

It did me good, it helped me stay

Above the blue line, come what may.

 

Now it’s over, my sad reply,

Tears of hurt and loss I cry,

Feeling useless, have to sigh

For fear of dark days once again nigh.

 

It did me good, it kept me busy,

Filled my days and weeks, and nearly

Convinced me that I was now surely

“Better”, “fixed”; was I silly?

 

Silly to be believe in “health” so easily,

Of usefulness, I thought sincerely

That all was good, I did feel truly

That this was it, “I’m better, really”.

 

The routine and the structure, see,

Work and occupation the key,

Helped me build life, ABC,

From sickness to health; 1, 2, 3!.

 

I got me carried away, and planned

To stay and work, but now that’s canned!

“I have no hours for you ma’am”,

It’s over; nothing to be gained.

 

You’re done here! Well it hit me hard,

I did not see it coming, barred

From that which made my life less marred,

It feels unfair, am I so tarred?

 

By that which has my brain entangled,

Bipolar, why have you now mangled

This, above all else was dangled

Hope, that by work I’d disentangle.

 

Please let me stay, I love it here,

The colleagues; the task; the jolly cheer,

And to my home it is so near,

Please let me stay, just anywhere.

 

I’ll type the scripts, talk on the phone,

Check the work that others have done,

I’ll smile, be nice, work with anyone,

Please, please, please don’t say I’m done!

 

 

 

The price of good health

Here’s my thing about the current mental health system. I know everyone has a different “thing”; this is mine at the moment.

Despite really needing them, I have exhausted the maximum number of Medicare-subsidised psychologist appointments that I am entitled to in a calendar year. I ran out in April. 4 months into the year!! Leaving me in the unenviable position of having to pay $145 per one hour session weekly with no Medicare rebate of $85 if I want to keep seeing my counsellor and improving my mental health. Not a great encouragement to continue therapy.

$145 is a lot of money for someone who has been off work for 100 days and ran out of sick leave after four and a half weeks! But this is not just about me, it’s about every patient who is getting treatment for mental illness. It’s a lot of money to anyone! So I tried to go without my psychologist session,then I tried spacing them out to two weeks or three weeks. Didn’t work terribly well or please my doctor or psychiatrist! Or me for that matter.

Luckily for me, in a freak moment of paranoia in 2010 I signed up for income protection insurance after a work colleague was diagnosed with cancer and couldn’t get insurance. Because of this I am getting a kind of substitute wage. So I am doing 10 tonnes of paperwork every month for the insurance company to pay me a benefit in arrears. So far I’ve had one payment. It was a great payment, but it was once! But there are a lot of people out there in the world who wouldn’t have been prepared to pay $85 per month for the last 4 years for the sake of an insurance payout that might never be needed. Thank goodness I did pay for it, though!!! It cost me but I am getting the benefit now.

In the case of people without income protection insurance they would be doing 10 tonnes of paperwork for Centrelink disability or sickness benefit or health care card or something else similar! For a lot less money probably. The government doesn’t match your current wage.

In an effort to address this problem with paying $145 out-of-pocket each week, I changed my insurance over in April so that I now pay a lot more per month for better psychologist and psychiatrist and inpatient psychiatry cover. Again, not something a lot of people would be prepared or able to do. Unfortunately I then had to wait two months to be able to use it! And I only get $250 worth of psychologist cover, not even two sessions!! Not quite worth it for that part.

Luckily, there is another benefit of income protection insurance that I was not aware of; in their portfolio of helping me they have agreed to fund 10 sessions!! Thank goodness!! And they have offered to put me through a meditation course, which I was already thinking of doing, so there’s a few perks to having paid privately for this insurance. But like I say, how many people could or would pay for this? How many people develop mental illness, which never comes in a planned way or at a convenient time, and have to make the choice between paying a huge amount  of money or go without treatment?

So this is the reason why there are crazy and hurting and needing-help people walking the streets; the private system is expensive!

And you can’t get admitted in the public system unless things are diabolically bad! They refused to admit me when I was suicidal and didn’t think I could keep going. I begged them to!! They would not do it. They just kept saying it would do me more harm than good. I kept begging. They kept refusing. They won. I got sent home. It wasn’t nice!!

They asked me if I had private insurance. Yes, yes I do. Well we’ll look for a private hospital bed for you. Okay sounds great, I just need to have someone look after me. Well we’ve called your insurance company and you will be $2500 out of pocket up front plus $400 per day. We don’t know how long you will need to be in hospital. Ummm, okay, maybe not! That’s a whopping lot of money! I know you can’t put a price on your health, but that’s a large pile of money that could be put to some other large life investment! Another reason for upgrading my insurance.

Now that I’ve served my waiting period of two months, I can get private hospital admission for only a few hundred dollars out of pocket. Will I need it? Maybe not, but I’d rather know that I can get it if the need arises because not being able to access it last time left me feeling even more desperate when I didn’t think it was possible!! But it’s a toss up, spend over a hundred a month to save a couple of thousand…how long til it adds up to that much anyway? But I have a plan to reduce my insurance if I don’t use it this year.

So instead of a hospital admission, the community psychiatric team came and visited me or called me once a day for 10 days until the new medication had kicked in and I started to see life in a more hopeful light. I have to say they were amazing and helped me so much. And I continued to see my usual GP and psychologist in that time, as well as a psychiatrist in training at the local office.

Which brings me to another point. I have been seeing a doctor once a week since last November. After the worst episode of suicidal thoughts and desperation I saw my GP twice a week for a couple of months, then went back to weekly. We’ve planned to stretch it out to fortnightly but we’ve never quite gotten there due to either a relapse or medication change.

The first doctor I saw charged me $73 per session. This is pretty standard. My current GP who I’ve been seeing since December usually charges $70 per session but bulk bills me because I’m a mental health patient and he doesn’t want mental health patients to not see him because they are worried about the cost. Which is a very important consideration!! And it actually does make all the difference! I know I can go in and see him anytime and I don’t worry about the cost, when I would otherwise consider that before booking an appointment.

Imagine $70 at least once a week since December. That’s 6 months. 23 weeks. If I had had to pay $70 per session I would be at least $1600 out of pocket!! Again, a lot of money for someone who hasn’t worked for 3 of those months. Or anyone, for that matter!! The Government has put in place a medical safety net so that if you have medical costs over a certain amount you can get a benefit at tax time. But you have to spend even more than this before you get the benefit, as I understand it. You really have to spend a fortune to get any help or subsidy.

Bulk billing is one of the greatest inventions but it relies on doctors being willing to take a Government-determined payment for their services rather than the larger fee that they could justifiably charge. That takes a dedicated and altruistic physician, and I’m so glad for every doctor that offers bulk billing! You are the hope of the sick and poor!!

Doctors that don’t bulk bill are private (non-hospital) psychiatrists. Which is understandable because they invest more than 10 years of their post-high school life to achieving the knowledge and expertise to work in that position. My psychiatrist charges $315 for the first consultation and $215 for subsequent appointments! Understanding this the Government rebates $221 for the first appointment and $113 for the second appointment. Not bad but still a fair amount of money to pay on a regular basis.

Then of course there are the medications. Lithium, venlafaxine, quetiapine. Diazepam for emergencies when I’m really anxious. Pantoprazole for gastric upset on lithium and venlafaxine. Levlen to avoid becoming pregnant on lithium and quetiapine. Cholecalciferol for reduced vitamin D from spending the last 3 months mostly indoors. Tooth mousse for increased cavities on quetiapine due to dry mouth. Anti-perspirant for over-heating and increased sweating on venlafaxine. High protein diet for iron deficiency. Low cholesterol diet for high cholesterol due to eating badly and quetiapine. Calorie restriction for increased appetite due to quetiapine and lithium and venlafaxine. Altogether it comes to about $150 per month for meds. There is also a prescription safety net, but this only comes into play after you have about 60 scripts dispensed in a calendar year. I’ll come in just under this so no safety net for me.

So that’s my whinge for today. From my position I feel lucky for the investment I made in insurance years ago, and I’m glad that I now have better insurance for the present and I’m glad that I’m in a position to afford these things. I’m not wealthy but I’m comfortable, and I feel for those people who really don’t have the money to get the treatment that they so badly need. Should we be subsidising treatment more than we do? Should people be made to have better insurance? Who pays for all of this? It’s not really an answerable dilemma, but I’d like to be more thankful that I’ve been able to get the treatment that I needed at times when I’ve really needed it!! Maybe not as much as I wanted but enough to keep me safe and pushing on.

And as I always say to my patients, I need to thank my stars that I was born in Australia not America. If I lived in America I would have had to pay for all of this and pay for it dearly! I’d probably have taken out a $20,000 personal loan by now or have completely used up our life savings.

Health. When it’s good, you don’t even think about it; it’s just there and we all take it for granted. We expect our bodies and minds to work in a predictable manner. We feel let down when they don’t work to our plans despite it being quite the miracle that all the intricate functions of our bodies work smoothly without a hitch.

But I’d like to take more time to be thankful for the days when my health comes to me easily! When it doesn’t take doctor’s visits, hospital admissions, psychologists, psychiatrists, medications, time off work to achieve a type of health. When I wake up and I’m just well! It really is a miracle and I want to appreciate it.