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Interview with Jane Marwick 6pr Perth

Transcript of Minister for Health, $185 million for dementia and ageing medical research; CAR-T Therapy; private healthcare premiums; pill testing at festivals

The Hon Greg Hunt MP
Former Minister for Health and Aged Care

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So a couple of big announcements from the federal Health Minister who joins me now. He is Greg Hunt. Minister, good morning, welcome to the program.


And good morning Jane and I have to say, I heard your Olivia Newton-John Summer Days intro, and I’ve had the privilege of working with her on her own cancer centre where she’s taken her journey and just been providing this amazing support.

She’s totally focused, totally engaged and absolutely professional about it and then one of the nicest people on the planet.


She's amazing isn't she? She really is incredible.


She really is.


That would be one of the perks of your job, I would imagine Minister: meeting people like Olivia Newton-John.


Yeah, look, you know, I get to meet people. This morning I've been in South Brisbane and we met a doctor who’d come from overseas who was working as a street doctor helping homeless people.

Then you meet some of those that have been very much in the public eye. Olivia has been somebody who’s helped create a cancer treatment and rehabilitation centre just through sheer force of focus and personal will.

And when you see that sort of thing – Carrie Bickmore with brain cancer, you know, people who are in the public eye and then you meet the substantive person and they're even better than the public person.


Yeah that's telling isn't it? And rare, I have to say. Look, let’s- seeing we're talking about Olivia Newton-John and cancer; this cancer therapy that supercharges a patient's immune cells to hunt and destroy cancer cells has been approved for use in Australia. This sounds exciting. What can you tell us?


So it's called CAR T therapy and what it does is they take the T cells out of the body; they then treat them, effectively reenergise them, reinject them into the body and for certain types of cancer such as lymphoma or leukaemia, it can be an effective cure.

Now it's still emerging as a treatment and as a technology but it's ground-breaking. I have met patients who have been treated with it overseas.

It’s now been approved as safe by the regulator - the Therapeutic Goods Administration - and our job is to now work with the states to make sure that Australia is a global leader in delivering the treatment but also in carrying it out not just for Australia but to be a global manufacturing centre for CAR T treatment.


Okay, that's really good news. It's nice to have some good news at this time of the year. I was intrigued - I saw the announcement yesterday about this dementia medical research out of Queensland.

Some of the news reports were quite extensive and it looks very, very hopeful to me, and look, I think Minister, you get to a certain age and you see older people in your community – parents, grandparents - who suffer from dementia; wouldn't it be terrific if we could find a cure right here in Australia?


Well absolutely. And of course, it's great news that we're on average living longer and what comes with that though, is some of these degenerative conditions of age, and Alzheimer's which is the largest component within the dementia family, of course, can be catastrophic.

There is now a potential pathway. So we're establishing a 10-year $185 million Australian Dementia Mission under the Medical Research Future Fund, but the first project that we're supporting based out of Brisbane, is this research into finding a way so as medicines and treatments can bypass what's called the blood brain barrier.

So that's been a reason that it’s been so hard to treat conditions of the brain, whether they are cancers or non-cancers - dementia is in the non-cancer category - and they believe that they have found a pathway through using targeted ultrasound which can allow treatments to go through and the ultrasound itself can be a treatment to remove some of the plaque from the brain which builds up. And so.


Yeah, that was extraordinary, wasn’t it? Sorry to interrupt you.


No, go ahead.


But I was reading about and watching it last night and I thought- and my understanding is this technology just temporarily opens that blood brain barrier and as you say, remove those plaques from the brain.

Now the thing I found very exciting about this was it has reversed Alzheimer's symptoms and restored memory function in animal models. So when do we get to human trials?


The first trials are next year and we were with the researchers - Professor Jürgen Götz at the University of Queensland – but his team- you want to see the best of Australia, you walk into- it could be at UWA, it could be Curtain, it could be anywhere amongst our great universities and you see the medical researchers who come from all backgrounds, all around the world, Australian, non-Australian, and they're all here because they think we are the best place in the world to do this medical research.

And, what it means is that the patients, the families get the chance to benefit. So dementia is a huge burden on families, on individuals, on society.

It’s a big fear legitimately for many people, but my belief after this research that we've sponsored yesterday and then in going forward over the course of the next decade is we can make dramatic breakthroughs.

It was impossible that we would reach survival rates in the high 80s for leukaemia 30 years ago and yet we are there. And it is equally possible now - what was impossible is now possible - that we can make dramatic transformations in the treatment of Alzheimer's and the broader family of dementia conditions.


I think this is so exciting and I reckon people listening today will just be absolutely intrigued by this, and congratulations to these health professionals and scientists here in Australia.


They’re amazing.


Yeah they really are amazing. Now look, health premiums are going up. I know you're going to tell me it's good news because it's not- it's below the rate of inflation and it's the lowest in whatever it is, 18 years. It's still up though, isn't it?


Look, I understand every single dollar matters to families. So we have slashed the changes that were occurring under the previous government, under the Labor government when Mr Shorten was the assistant treasurer.

They’re there down by 40 per cent compared with the changes that were occurring under them, and yes it is the lowest change in 18 years and it's only come about because there have been massive reforms.

But importantly, I think for your listeners, there's also the capacity on top of this to get discounts of up to 10 per cent or $150 a year for singles or up $300 a year for young couples or young families through discounts for people who are under 30.

And that compares with - I'm sorry to say this - a proposal for a 16 per cent price hike or almost $250 for singles or $500 for couples that Labor's proposing, when they're going to rip away the private health insurance rebate. So we believe in this deeply.

The alternative does not believe in it and these changes are the result of the biggest reforms in a decade delivering the lowest price changes in 18 years.


I'm speaking with Greg Hunt. He’s the federal Health Minister. Minister I wonder though, any increase is an increase and we can say that it's below inflation but I know plenty of people whose wages just aren't keeping pace with inflation.

I wonder - and I'm putting it out to you 6PR listener - will this increase of 3.25 per cent that takes place on 1 April - how will that impact you? Will you stay in your private health insurance? Will you pare it down?

Minister, what are we seeing across the board when we look at people's investment in private health insurance? Are they just going for the basics, for the essentials? Are people opting out and relying on the public system and Medicare?


So there's always a mixture of some people coming in and some going out.

We've seen some – well a flattening compared with the change where people were beginning to drop out and so the overall number of Australians is very close to 55 per cent who have some form of private health insurance.

These reforms are designed to A) give people certainly, so you can look on one page and know what's in and what's out and B) to give them better choice so as they compare across the different private health insurers.

The other thing is better coverage for mental health, so people don't have to wait if they want to upgrade to get improved coverage for mental health, and better coverage in particular for WA, for people in rural and regional Australia, so their transport and travel costs.


That’s important. That is important. Rural and regional in the state the size of this- of WA is absolutely vital.

Before you go, and we really are out of time, but I just wanted to ask you because Karl O'Callaghan, our former police commissioner is doing the Drive program here, Perth Live, and he had- he was talking about pill testing yesterday afternoon.

We know the ACTU has had some pill testing at music festivals. Do you think it's a good idea?


No, I don't. And the reason why is people such as the New South Wales Police Commissioner, the discussions with the Australian Federal Police, the discussion with the Chief Medical Officer, make it absolutely clear these illegal drugs are illegal because there's no safe level, and this idea that there is a safe level and there are worse ones and better ones, I think is wrong.

There is no safe level for these illicit drugs. They're illicit; they're illegal; they're against the law for a reason and that’s because they can kill people, and we need to be very clear on that. Authorised by


Okay. Well I was- I think I'm swayed in the other direction. I might have agreed with you previously but I think listening to the people who are doing the testing who are saying this is an educational tool for young people probably has some benefit because I feel like we've lost the battle with this generation.

Minister, it's been great speaking to you. Thank you for your time today.


It's a pleasure. Take care.

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