Assistant Minister McBride – press conference in Wollongong – 15 May 2023

Read the transcript of Assistant Minister McBride's press conference in Wollongong about strengthening Medicare and cheaper medicines.

The Hon Emma McBride MP
Assistant Minister for Mental Health and Suicide Prevention
Assistant Minister Rural and Regional Health

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EMMA McBRIDE, ASSISTANT MINISTER: I'm so pleased to be here in the Illawarra today with the Member for Cunningham, Alison Byrnes. We've made a significant investment in bulk billing, particularly for people living outside major cities. What we've seen in this Budget is $3.5 billion to triple the bulk billing incentive so practices like this can continue to bulk bull children under 16, age pensioners, and people who hold other healthcare and concession cards.

We've seen, under the former government, a dramatic drop in bulk billing right across Australia, leaving some of the most vulnerable people unable to access care, ending up in the emergency departments of our already overstretched hospital system. So, this investment will mean that practices like King Street Medical and Dental can continue to bulk bill children under 16, older people, and health care card holders. We know what a difference it makes to your health to be able to get the right care when you need it, affordably and close to home. And we're so pleased to be able to support bulk billing, particularly in regional centres and right across Australia. Our Government is committed to strengthening Medicare, so all Australians can get the health care they need.

JOURNALIST: And you just touched on it there, it was for under 16s and pension card holders, what is in it for the people that don't fit in to those categories?

EMMA McBRIDE, ASSISTANT MINISTER: So, we know practices like this have such a strong interest in community and making sure that everyone, whatever their bank balance, can afford care. So, there'll be around 11 million Australians who will benefit directly from this policy, and many more Australians that will have a wider benefit from it. We know that practices were sometimes forced to cross subsidise by increasing the co-payment to other people, because they didn't have enough through a bulk billing incentive, so by increasing the bulk billing incentive, children under 16, age pensioners and other healthcare card holders will be bulk billed, and other people will be likely paying less in a co-payment.

JOURNALIST: So under 16s and pensioners, they're the priority group?

EMMA McBRIDE, ASSISTANT MINISTER: We absolutely want to make sure that everybody gets quality health care close to home, we of course have a particular emphasis on the most vulnerable to make sure that they can get care. And we know that with cost-of-living pressures, children under 16, families and older people are really feeling the pressure. So, this is a very good cost of living incentive to reduce medical bills, which will have a big impact, particularly on families, but right across Australia.

JOURNALIST: And how many clinics do you see taking up this opportunity? Or is there a quota the Government would like to meet?

EMMA McBRIDE, ASSISTANT MINISTER: I was at the Rural Health Conference in Tasmania over the weekend, and Tasmania has some of the lowest rates of bulk billing in Australia, and I spoke to the rural president of the Royal Australian College of General Practice, I spoke to the incoming president, RT, of the Rural Doctors Association, and they were very confident that practices which felt they might be forced to stop bulk billing come 1 July, will be able to continue. And I spoke to a local GP, Jess, who said to me they'd reluctantly had to stop bulk billing towards the end of last year, and they'll now be able to reintroduce it. So, the Government's given every investment we can to strengthen Medicare and I'm so pleased to hear that feedback already, from peak bodies, from GPs in communities, particularly where there was a sharp drop in bulk billing, that we're going to see an increase in bulk billing.

JOURNALIST: As you mentioned regional communities typically have less access to affordable health care. In Cunningham, Alison's electorate, just 9% of clinics bulk bill, which is the second lowest in Greater Sydney. Is the whole thing behind this making sure we can increase those numbers, especially in rural and regional communities?

EMMA McBRIDE, ASSISTANT MINISTER: Absolutely, that is our intention as a Government. Strengthening Medicare is one of our top priorities. Minister Butler stood up the Strengthening Medicare Taskforce, we committed $750 million over three years and we've exceeded that. This is a $3.5 billion investment in tripling the bulk billing incentive.

At the same time, we're providing grants to general practices to be able to upgrade their IT or improve their equipment for infection prevention and control.

We're introducing the single employer model, which means that doctors training in hospitals can move seamlessly from their hospital-based training to working in general practice.

We're investing in innovative models of care, including multidisciplinary teams so you can see what you see here, where you've got a psychologist who can have a direct conversation with the GP about a patient and their care.

So, we're making investment across the whole pipeline to see more doctors going into general practice, general practice better supported to provide that care and incentives through the WIP, the multidisciplinary team, so we are getting team-based care, which is the right care.

JOURNALIST: I'll just ask you about pharmacy as well. Is that policy set in stone or is there room to move, for pharmacists to choose between 30 and 60 days?

EMMA McBRIDE, ASSISTANT MINISTER: The advice that was given to the Health Minister, Minister Butler, from the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee had existed since 2018. And that advice said that it could move to 90 days or 60 days. So, Minister Butler has made the decision on that advice to move to 60 days. This is a cost-of-living Budget. We're giving cost-of-living relief where we can. This will make it more affordable for almost 6 million Australians to be able to get their medicines.

We're very keen for all healthcare practitioners to be able to work to the top of their skills and training, so we've seen a decision in the Budget as well that pharmacists will now be able to access, for children over 5, the National Immunisation Program. Anything that has been saved is being directly invested back into community pharmacy. We value community pharmacy. I'm a pharmacist, I've worked in community pharmacy, we want to see a strong community pharmacy, in every town, and in every city. And we know that we need healthcare workers to work to the top of their skills and training and their scope of practice.

We've announced a national scope of practice review, to look at how every health care professional will be able to use all of their skills and training so that Australians can benefit. So with this, everything will be reinvested into community pharmacy, pharmacists will have an expanded scope of practice as they had already. And we're really keen to continue working with community pharmacists and their representative body to make sure that we have a vibrant and strong community pharmacy sector so every Australian can get affordable medicine close to home and quality care.

JOURNALIST: You just mentioned you're a pharmacist and you've given us the Labor policy, do you share the concerns that pharmacists have?

EMMA McBRIDE, ASSISTANT MINISTER: I'm really proud to be part of a Labor Government that is so strongly focused on making health care affordable. And this is an important measure to make sure that every Australian can access quality care. We're very keen to work in strong collaboration with the pharmacy sector to make sure that we can see that expanded scope of practice so pharmacists can continue to provide immunisations, like I did, giving jabs during COVID. We want to make sure that the community pharmacy sector is strong, any savings made are being redirected back into community pharmacy, so that pharmacists can work to the top of their skills and training to make sure that we can get every health practitioner contributing as much as they can to healthcare.

JOURNALIST: What do you think of the concerns about medicine shortages?

EMMA McBRIDE, ASSISTANT MINISTER: From the first of July, there will be a requirement that there will be 6 months of medicines onshore. Across lots of different sectors, Australia was exposed through global supply chains. So, from the first of July, there will be a requirement to have 6 months supply of all medicines onshore in Australia.

JOURNALIST: Do you think it's achievable given the shortages at the moment?

EMMA McBRIDE, ASSISTANT MINISTER: I think that we are putting every measure in place to make sure that we have a strong supply chain, from the manufacturers, through the wholesalers through to pharmacists dispensing the medication. We are working very closely, the Government is working very closely through the Department of Health with the advisory bodies to make sure that the measures that we put in place are safe. And we've been assured that we will have those secure supply chain so people can get the medicine they need.

JOURNALIST: They're starting a petition down on the South Coast. What is your message to them? Anything you can say which might give a peace of mind to them? Or what's your reaction to that?

EMMA McBRIDE, ASSISTANT MINISTER: Our Government values community pharmacy. Everything that has come out of the maximum dispensing quantities will be directly invested back into community pharmacy. We have this national scope of practice review, which is a way of looking at removing outdated red tape and silos to make sure that we have team-based care, which is the right care. So as a pharmacist, myself, as a pharmacist immuniser, I know how much pharmacists have to offer. And we want to make sure that they have the opportunity to work to their top of their skills and training, working in teams with GPs, like here at King Street Medical and Dental, with psychologists, with social workers, to make sure that we have strong interdisciplinary, team-based care that we know is the right kind of care.

JOURNALIST: Tell me a bit about your reaction to the Government's new bulk-billing incentive.

ALISON BYRNES, MEMBER FOR CUNNINGHAM: It has been such a welcome relief for so many people in our community to see the single biggest investment in bulk billing in a very, very long time. I've had a lot of contact from constituents who are really relieved, and certainly here at King Street Medical Centre, they are very happy to be able to get some support in allowing them to continue to bulk bill their most vulnerable patients.

JOURNALIST: So Cunningham has the rate of bulk billing at 9%, and they are significantly low numbers. What is your reaction to that?

ALISON BYRNES, MEMBER FOR CUNNINGHAM: It's something that we have lobbied very strongly for, Stephen and myself, to Mark Butler, and also to Emma as well, so something we've delivered in the Budget is a tripling of the bulk billing incentive for eligible patients.

JOURNALIST: Are you confident that people in this electorate will take up this opportunity?

ALISON BYRNES, MEMBER FOR CUNNINGHAM: Absolutely. We've got King Street Medical Centre here today, saying what a big relief it is for them. And it will actually help them to be able to bulk-bill their most vulnerable patients and other concession card holders.

JOURNALIST: Is it going to make it easier for people to see a doctor in general? Bulk billing aside, that's been a big concern for people, just being able to get an appointment.

ALISON BYRNES, MEMBER FOR CUNNINGHAM: Certainly, being able to get an appointment here in the Illawarra has been really problematic, and that is across the country. And it's something that we're very conscious of, but actually this investment in tripling the bulk billing incentive will allow particularly our most vulnerable people to get in and see a doctor.

JOURNALIST: How can we ensure the rollout of Electrify 2515's plan for an all-electric Illawarra? How does the Budget support this movement?

ALISON BYRNES, MEMBER FOR CUNNINGHAM: Well, we've got a $1.3 billion investment in the Budget for electrification and Electrify 2515 has been doing some amazing work. I've been working very closely with Saul Griffith and the Electrify 2515 team. They're also applying for some arena funding as well, which is through an independent body, but certainly any ideas they've got, I'm more than happy to represent them in Canberra, and it's certainly something I've been working very hard on. We've had our Renewable Energy Expo down in Canberra, where we took Wollongong to the world. We had people from embassies, we had politicians, we had industry leaders, we had apprentices all there to see the great work that Wollongong businesses are doing in the cleaner energy space.

JOURNALIST: Tell me your initial thoughts about this $3.5 billion incentive.

DR KATHERINE MICHELMORE, GENERAL PRACTITIONER: We're really pleased. Speaking as a GP, and for the GPs in this practice, about the current recommendations for this Budget, it's the first time general practice has had something to feel pretty optimistic about. Obviously, it's the first step, there's still a lot more that we're going to need to ensure continuity of care and chronic disease management with general practice. But yes, we are excited.

JOURNALIST: Are you hoping this will attract more GPs to bulk bill and ease the burden off this clinic?

DR KATHERINE MICHELMORE, GENERAL PRACTITIONER: Look, I think the raise to the bulk billing incentive is definitely welcome. It's obviously restricted to certain groups so there are some people who are going to be feeling like it's not going to improve their access. I'd like to see it extended to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, because they are very vulnerable. And I think we need to focus on closing the gap, and recognising that there are still health disparities for our First Nations peoples. But it's definitely a start and definitely positive.

I think we do need to address the issue that this is great if you have a GP, and you have access to your GP and you'll be able to have more affordable care in practices with mixed billing, or bulk billing. However, there's still a shortage of doctors. And I'm looking to this Government to hopefully continue working on that. I think we need more doctors, we need more GPs, and that's across the country. So as a practitioner, I'm very pleased that we're moving in the right direction, but there's still a lot to do.

JOURNALIST: Here in this practice, you're already bulk billing kids under 16 and concession card holders, so it won't actually change what those patients come in and pay, is that right?

DR KATHERINE MICHELMORE, GENERAL PRACTITIONER: That's not going to change for our patients here. But as a practice, and for us as GPs, it makes a big difference, because it means that the practice is going to be more viable. And you know, that's important. That means that we can continue to bulk bill our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. And I'd like to see that happening across more practices throughout Australia.

JOURNALIST: So it makes it more affordable for them?

DR KATHERINE MICHELMORE, GENERAL PRACTITIONER: It makes, it makes the practice more viable, yes.

JOURNALIST: And does it change things at all for other patients who don't fall into those concessions? Like will they see any difference in their gap fee?

DR KATHERINE MICHELMORE, GENERAL PRACTITIONER: I think that obviously, that's a question that needs to be worked out. And obviously, we're talking about these very positive measures, but they don't actually come into place until November. So many practices across Australia are still having to manage with the current rates at the moment. So I think perhaps, extrapolating as to how it's going to affect other delegates is perhaps a little premature.

JOURNALIST: What will happen up until that point, what do you do then?

DR KATHERINE MICHELMORE, GENERAL PRACTITIONER: Well, I presume that some practices will be looking at whether or not they can continue to bulk bill or whether they'll make some changes in the future. But obviously, it's supposed to be an individual reaction according to where people are, what the cost of rents and maintaining practices is for people. But here this practice will continue to do as we have.

JOURNALIST: We've heard that less people are wanting to go to GPs, and it's harder to make ends meet for GPs. Do you feel buoyed by the changes that happened in the Budget? That it makes a difference for the profession and for someone doing their job?

DR KATHERINE MICHELMORE, GENERAL PRACTITIONER: As I said, it's perhaps the first time in a long time that we've had cause for optimism. I don't think the problems are fixed. I think there needs to be a lot more energy and training general practitioners, and we'll need more GPs, definitely. But I think Australia needs to train more doctors generally, and I think that's a big issue. In Australia, I think we still bring in as many doctors as we have graduates each year and so that's still an issue.

JOURNALIST: Is there anything else you would like to mention?

DR KATHERINE MICHELMORE, GENERAL PRACTITIONER: I think as a GP, I'm quite excited about the fact that there's money going towards smoking cessation and trying to control vaping. And I'm excited about the idea that we're going to be doing lung cancer screening so I'm looking forward to more detail on that. I think that's going to be really important to the management of chronic disease.

JOURNALIST: Thank you very much.

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