‘Important’ role GPs play in COVID vaccine access for asylum seekers

Morgan Liotta

22/06/2021 4:27:58 PM

Many patients without a Medicare card, like refugees, assume they will not be eligible for the vaccination – but GPs can help.

Woman talking to doctor
Disseminating information in languages other than English, as well as the use of interpreters, where appropriate, is essential.

People on temporary visas, refugees, asylum seekers, those in detention centres and those with cancelled visas are all eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, based on age criteria. But without a Medicare card, some may believe they are ineligible, or are unsure.
That’s where GPs come in, according to Dr Rebecca Farley, Chair of the RACGP Specific Interests Refugee Health.
‘Reflecting on conversations I have had with a number of my patients ineligible for Medicare, the importance of our role as GPs in supporting this vulnerable population to access the COVID-19 vaccine is apparent,’ Dr Farley told newsGP.
‘The vaccine hesitancy we have seen in Australia is exacerbated for asylum seekers without Medicare for a number of reasons.
‘It can be difficult for asylum seekers to access up-to-date, reliable information, and many are anxious because of information they have heard in the Australian media and from overseas.’
For people without a Medicare card, there are other forms of identification they can use when arranging their COVID-19 vaccination, such as an ImmiCard, or another form of photo ID or a visa letter which meets the requirements.
While refugee and asylum seeker patients may have reservations about providing personal details, Dr Farley says they need to be made aware that the information collected as part of the COVID-19 vaccine process is about their eligibility for the vaccine, not about their visa status.   
And GPs are the bridge that connects them with such information in order to ease concerns.
‘It is so important that we collaborate with communities to deliver appropriate public health messaging that considers language and cultural difference,’ Dr Farley said.
‘It is also important that we consider the fear, uncertainty and limited resources asylum seekers live with every day. Many assume that they will not be eligible for the vaccination.
‘As GPs, it is essential that we are aware that every person in Australia, irrespective of Medicare status, can receive the COVID-19 vaccine for free, when they are eligible.
‘We also need to know how to support every person in Australia to access the vaccine.’
Speaking to newsGP in February at the start of Australia’s vaccine rollout, Dr Farley said vaccine hesitancy was already a concern for her refugee and asylum seeker patients, and that disseminating information in languages other than English, as well as the use of interpreters where appropriate, is essential to supporting this patient population.
The Department of Health resource page provides information for patients not eligible for Medicare wishing to get the vaccine, including the list of state-based vaccination clinics.
Dr Farley says the fact the clinics include GPs who understand the communities they work with will further support these patients.
‘COVID-19 vaccines are [also] able to be given in general practices to asylum seekers,’ she said.
‘It is up to the discretion of the GP if they see asylum seekers without Medicare cards, as while the vaccines themselves are funded, GPs are not able to charge for giving them to Medicare ineligible patients.’
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