Assistant Minister Kearney doorstop in Nowra - 18 May 2023

Read the transcript of Assistant Minister Kearney's doorstop on strengthening Medicare; bulk billing incentive; aged care pay rise; Palliative Care Week; cheaper medicines and 60 day dispensing.

The Hon Ged Kearney MP
Assistant Minister for Health and Aged Care

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DOMINIC FRAWLEY, JUNCTION STREET FAMILY PRACTICE, NOWRA: Good day. I'm Dom Frawley. I am a rural GP here at Junction Street Family Practice in Nowra, and I'm thrilled to have a couple of representatives of the federal government here. We have our local member, Fiona Phillips and Ged Kearney, the Assistant Minister for Health and Aged Care. In general practice we've been really happy to see the Federal Government step up and acknowledge General Practice and really offer us something that relieves a bit of the suffering we've been going through in recent years. So I have been really pleased to see a little bit of money behind it and also the symbols that show that they care about what's happening in general practice and in aged care. So we're really looking forward to seeing how that builds over time and waiting to see what difference it makes to us with the stuff that's already been announced. So I'm really grateful to have both of them here today and might throw that away now.

FIONA PHILLIPS MP, MEMBER FOR GILMORE: Thank you, Dr Dom. Great to be here at Junction Street Family Medical Practice with Dr Dominic Frawley and Ged Kearney, the Assistant Minister for Health and Aged Care. We know on the South Coast that many people have told me how difficult it is to get in to see a GP. I've heard that right across the region. And one of the things that I have been going back and talking to them, when we're in opposition and now in government, that we need to strengthen Medicare, we need to support primary care and the really valuable jobs that our local GPs do. So I am absolutely thrilled with all our measures to strengthen Medicare in the federal budget. It's going to make a huge difference to our local GP practices across the region and importantly for people on the South Coast. We know what happens when people can't get that care. They often end up in our local emergency department with bed block at the hospital. Everything we can do to support primary care and local GPs is a good thing for people across this region.

GED KEARNEY, ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE: Good morning, everyone. I'm Ged Kearney, I'm the Assistant Minister for Health and Aged Care and it's absolutely wonderful to be here with Fiona Phillips, a great member for Gilmore and I know she works incredibly hard in this community and really cares about their health and that's why she's here supporting me today at the Junction Street Family Practice.

We've had a wonderful chat this morning with the general practitioners and the nurses that work here at this centre. And it's been terrific for me as the Assistant Minister for Health to hear the very good feedback about the initiatives in the budget. We know the general practice is the heart and soul of a community. The GPs work so hard to make sure the communities stay healthy, that they can stay home in their community, that they don't need to go into hospital because they haven't been able to get the care that they need in their community. And that's why we're so pleased in the budget that we've invested $6.1 billion into primary health care. This is a massive investment because we want general practice and we want primary health care to be the absolute centrepin of our health system.

Everybody wants to stay healthy in their community. We have tripled the bulk billing incentive. And what I've heard here today and from many other general practices right around the country, is that this means general practices can keep bulk billing their vulnerable patients, those on health care cards and children under 16. So many practices were telling us that they were fearful after years of neglect and years of underfunding, that they would have to drop that bulk billing for those vulnerable people. So I'm really pleased that that won't happen.

We also introduced other measures like extra funding for long consults. We know that many people today have complex health needs, they have chronic conditions that need a good time spent with their general practitioner. And for too long GPs were telling us that they were doing that unfunded. They spend the time anyway, out of the goodness of their hearts and that makes their practices unviable if they're not getting paid for that. So we're very pleased that now you can have an hour or more session with your GP and that will be adequately funded.

There will be funding to encourage more practice nurses so that we have a multidisciplinary healthcare team right here in your community where you can see a practice nurse and you may need to see other allied health professionals. And we're hoping that will mean that the GP team is a multidisciplinary team and they'll be able to provide more care.

And that's just some of the incentives that we've been able to offer our primary health care team and we're incredibly proud of that. So thanks to all the GPs that are here today to have a chat. Thanks for the lovely cakes, it’s always welcome and it's really great to be here in Nowra. Happy to take some questions.

JOURNALIST: As you mentioned, we've got billing is a great situation for GPs, but it doesn't necessarily mean that more appointments will be available. Is that the case?

KEARNEY: Well, we hope that it means that general practices will stay financially viable, as we know that the funding has been run down for so many years, that it's been very difficult for them to run. Many general practices have told us they just perhaps can't even keep their doors open or they have to charge very large gap fees. We're hoping that this investment in primary health care says to general practices and everybody who works in these primary health care clinics that we are investing in you. We want you to stay, we want there to be more of you. I think a lot of the issues about not being able to get appointments at a general practice is that there aren't enough people actually wanting to work in general practice. So we're trying to encourage our young doctors to come and work in general practice by saying that we as a government value what they do and we're prepared to invest in it and make it a good place to work.

JOURNALIST: Is there a target that the government has set in relation to a target for the number of GPs they would like to see retake up that bulk billing incentive?

KEARNEY: Yeah we're working very closely with the RACGP, the College of General Practice, the AMA and other colleges and the profession in general to actually say, well, what do we need? We know only 13% of medical students go into general practice. We need a lot more. I can't say exactly how many, but we would need a lot more to make sure that Australians stay healthy in their community. And we will be doing everything we can to increase and improve that pipeline. We were talking today about a model that we're trialling called a direct employment model where registrars who are learning about general practice specialty, because it is a specialty like any other specialty being a GP, can actually be employed on a permanent basis by the state or the state hospital where they get conditions like long service leave, sick leave, maternity leave and things like that. And we're hoping that incentives like that will help more people learn about private health care and want to stay there.

JOURNALIST: As I'm sure you're aware there is, for lack of a better word, a bit of like, backlash from some of the pharmacists on the South Coast in relation to the 60-day extended prescription policy. Are you able to maybe address that issue that's occurring there and give them some peace of mind saying that, yeah, it isn't detrimental for them, which is, I guess, the narrative that they're concerned with.

KEARNEY: Yeah, we've been very disappointed really, in the campaign that has been run against this wonderful policy. Because this is a policy that means people will not have to go to their GP every month to get a script, that they can get a script that will last double the time, so two months. They only have to have half the number of GP visits which will save their money, save them time, open up more spaces at the general practice. But it will definitely save a lot of money at the pharmacy when you pick up one script instead of two. This is about cost saving measures for everyday people in our community who are finding it so hard to make ends meet at the moment. And we know that cost of living is the number one issue and halving the cost of medicines is very important so that's something that we are prepared to do. But every dollar we save as a government, we are going to reinvest into community pharmacies. Every single dollar is going back into the pharmacy to help them survive and to overcome any effect that this might have.

JOURNALIST: A couple of them have done their calculations and they've said that they're going to see a revenue loss of about 40%, which is obviously not really that viable and anything above that obviously will mean that they'll have to close. I mean, is that really cost saving, if that's the case?

KEARNEY: Well, we think the impact is, across the whole industry is actually a small proportion of the income that they get and we're confident that the pharmacies will be okay with this measure. We want to continue our discussions with the Pharmacy Guild about this situation and we are asking the Pharmacy Guild to come back and talk to us about this so we can continue to support community pharmacies who we value enormously. In fact, some of the incentives that we are creating are things that will again help the community. They'll be able to get all of the vaccinations right from childhood vaccinations right through to a COVID booster at their pharmacy. That's just one of the things that we will be introducing.

JOURNALIST: Would you say that the situation, I suppose could have been worse? Because my understanding was that the government, a 90-day option was on the table and the government opted for the 60-day option. So could it have been worse I guess?

KEARNEY: Well, we've landed on this situation. We were negotiating in good faith with the Guild and this is where we landed. We understand that there will be an impact on pharmacies, but we are absolutely confident that where we’ve fallen is the best for the pharmacy. But just as importantly, it is the best thing for our community.

JOURNALIST: Couple questions about palliative care. So next week is palliative care week. So Wollongong Hospital in particular, they have two palliative care nurses between 400 patients. Is that ratio, I suppose, normal?

KEARNEY: Well, I myself was a nurse and I know how incredibly important the area of palliative care is. Palliative care nurses in particular, and everyone who works in palliative care provide a really important service at somebody's end of life. And as you know, that's a very special area. We need more nurses generally right across the board, whether it's in aged care, whether it's in palliative care, whether it's in general practice like it. We would love to see more nurses working in general practice. And we are doing everything we can to make sure that our nursing workforce is as robust as it possibly can be. There's no doubt that we could do with more.

JOURNALIST: And can you make some form of a commitment to the people at Wollongong Hospital to make sure that they are receiving adequate care and not having to run between 200 patients in any given day?

KEARNEY: Well, the hospitals and staffing levels predominantly are the prerogative of the state governments. The state governments run our hospitals and they are the ones that set staffing levels. Federally, we work very closely with state premiers and state health ministers to make sure that the arrangements are adequate and suitable. So certainly staffing levels are something that the states manage, but we can have conversations with them about.

JOURNALIST: Is there maybe like a message for them that you might want to say ahead of palliative care week?

KEARNEY: Well, to all those wonderful nurses and doctors and carers that work in palliative care, whether you do palliative care in a hospital, you help someone die with dignity at  home or whether you're working in aged care - we really appreciate what you do. It is an incredibly important and difficult place to work, but we know that you make a really sad time the best it possibly can be for a person who's dying.

JOURNALIST: A couple around aged care from local aged care providers. So the first few are around workforce support. So the first one is would you consider investing in training programmes and development courses to facilitate a shift in the mindset and practices within the workplace, given the evolving nature of aged care becoming more acute?

KEARNEY: I think certainly aged care has changed over time and we are seeing people stay longer in their home and want to stay home a lot longer. So when they are admitted to aged care, it's often because they're in physical conditions or because they have something like dementia, which requires a lot of care. And there's no doubt that the requirements on our aged care workforce are increasing in intensity because of that. So I think we need to make sure that our aged care workforce is the best it can be and that the training is adequate.

JOURNALIST: What steps or strategies do you propose to positively influence public perception of aged care in order to attract and retain workers?

KEARNEY: Well, one of the best things we've done and the biggest investment of this Government in this Budget, is give aged care workers a 15% pay rise. I think that for too long, they have been one of the lowest paid workers in our economy and yet they provide one of the most important jobs, and that is looking after elderly, vulnerable people in the aged care sector. The pay rise, we hope, it’s a 15% pay rise. It's billions of dollars. We hope that this will make it a more attractive place for people to work. It will be better retention. And if more people want to work in the sector, then we have better quality care for our elderly. We also, as you know, have implemented nearly half of the Royal Commission recommendations. And as we work through those recommendations, we're absolutely confident that aged care will be the best place in this community.

JOURNALIST: Is 15% just the beginning? From my understanding, the first budget that Labor handed down, they were pushing for a 25% increase and 15% was delivered and then obviously delivered again in his second budget. So is 15 just the beginning, is there any possibility for 25%?

KEARNEY: Well, wage outcomes or quanta of wage increases are determined by the Fair Work Commission. So the 15% was determined by the Fair Work Commission, not the government. But we always said that we would fund whatever the Fair Work Commission came up with as the figure. And that was 15% and we were very happy to fund that in full.

JOURNALIST: And what are your thoughts on implementing fee free qualifications for staff?

KEARNEY: Well, the Government in its budget, actually have implemented fee free TAFE places, which we think is a fabulous investment, particularly in workforces like the aged care workforce where cert 3s or cert 4s can be done at TAFE. Fee free TAFE is an investment in our workforce, particularly workforces like the aged care workforce definitely.

JOURNALIST: For Fiona, as you know, pharmacists on the South Coast have started a petition, which I'm assuming is a national petition to abolish the 60 day prescription I guess it's now going to become standard. What are your thoughts on that petition?

PHILLIPS: Look, I think the petition is actually a dishonest scare campaign. I've got to be honest. This is actually about a good health outcome and actually providing cheaper medicine to people right across this region and across Australia. It's actually about helping free up GP appointments so that those that are the most sick can actually get into a GP and so that those people don't end up in the emergency department at our local hospital. This is really good health policy and I think it's important to remember that the government is actually putting every single dollar back into our pharmacies. And we've seen a range of programmes there. Opening up the National Immunisation Register for pharmacists, the opioid treatment access programme to pharmacists. We've also seen the doubling of the Rural Maintenance Allowance for pharmacists as well. And not only that, a national scope of practice review that will ensure that our pharmacists and other professions in the healthcare sector can act to their full scope. So we want to see actually pharmacists being able to do more. Pharmacists are a very, very, very valuable part of our community, but we need to make sure that people who need their medication can get access to it and that means getting it cheaper as well.

JOURNALIST: We've spoken to a couple of them and obviously they are very concerned. One in particular, Jovan, mentioned that she did vote for you, because you were local and that you would understand the local issues and what impacts this area. But as of later on, as of recent, she feels like that you've failed her as a voter. What do you make of that?

PHILLIPS: Well, I have to look at the entire electorate and look at the health outcomes for people across Gilmore. And I've got 90,000 people in this area that are going to benefit from cheaper medicines. I want to make sure that every person in this electorate can afford to get their medicines. That they can access a local GP and as I said, they don't overburden our emergency department at our hospital. I'm putting patients first, not profits.

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