Australia shocked the world last month by becoming the first country to legalize the therapeutic use of psilocybin and MDMA. But what’s even more shocking is the fact that this therapy could cost at least AU$25,000 (US$17,000) per patient.
Starting this July, the Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) will start allowing psychiatrists to prescribe psilocybin or MDMA to treat severe cases of depression and PTSD. These new medicines will remain highly restricted, however. Psychiatrists can only prescribe them to patients who have been diagnosed with treatment-resistant conditions, and each prescription must be approved by an independent ethics committee as well.
The program is turning out to be way more restrictive than it seemed at first, though. The TGA has not approved any legal shroom or ecstasy products, so psychiatrists who want to prescribe them must import the drugs from other countries. For a standard course of treatment, that adds up to around $1,000 to $2,000 per patient. The country's public healthcare system doesn't currently cover the cost of the medicine, either.
The real expense of the therapy comes from hiring staff to oversee these sessions. Each treatment generally requires two licensed psychologists who will supervise at least three 8-hour psychedelic therapy sessions, plus a few traditional therapy sessions in between. These new treatment centers will also have to build out their own locations and hire additional staff as well.
“For the actual patient, it might be $25,000, $30,000 for a treatment,” said Dr. Stephen Bright, senior lecturer at Edith Cowan University and director of the charity Psychedelic Research In Science & Medicine, to The Sydney Morning Herald.
“I honestly don’t think, for the next 12 to 18 months post July 1, that these treatments will be very widely available at all,” Dr. Bright added. “The tight controls of therapy mean there are very few psychologists who put their hand up. There will be a few clinics that open up, but I don’t think we’re going to see the floodgates open.”
The few psychologists who are working to open the country's first psychedelic treatment centers agree that the therapy will probably be priced out of reach. Dr. Paul Liknaitzky, head of the Clinical Psychedelic Lab at Monash University, is working with an investment company to open a psychedelic-assisted therapy clinic in Melbourne this year. But even with financial backing, the doctor doesn't expect his treatments to be affordable.
“Sensible and safe treatment approaches, based on decades of best-practice development, will include considerable screening, psychotherapy and other support,” said Dr. Liknaitzky to The Sydney Morning Herald. “A typical course of treatment, spanning a few months, may be in the order of $25,000, plus or minus $10,000.”
Experts are hoping that someone will eventually figure out a way to mitigate these eye-watering costs. Dr. Liknaitzky said he is trying to convince private insurance companies to agree to help subsidize the costs of these treatments. Clinicians are also hoping that Australia will eventually cover the cost of these therapies under the country's universal public healthcare program. But before that can happen, researchers will need to prove that the program can be cost effective.
“We’re trying to get a groundswell of research and funding so we can do the research, clinical studies and practice rollout [to ensure] that this is not purely a market-led solution where the most disadvantaged populations are missing out,” said Professor Chris Langmead of the Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences to The Sydney Morning Herald. “The TGA has put Australia at the forefront of the world and we really need to take the opportunity and make the most of it.”