Interview with Leila McKinnon and Charles Croucher, Today - 6 June 2022

Read the transcript of Minister Butler's interview with Leila McKinnon and Charles Croucher, Today on Nine, discussing the Australian Government's priorities in health and aged care, COVID-19, and access to GPs.

The Hon Mark Butler MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care

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CHARLES CROUCHER: Over the last few years, Australia's health and aged care sectors have been pushed further than ever before - a global pandemic killing millions around the world and isolating loved ones. Thousands of incidents of neglect and abuse both emotionally and physically of our most vulnerable in residential care have also been unidentified, and an insurmountable staffing crisis with our frontline workers so undervalued and, in many cases underpaid, some have left the industry.

LEILA MCKINNON: Yeah, it's not a pretty picture, is it? With a new Labor Government now in power, many are relying on Anthony Albanese to instil real change, and the man at the helm of the health and aged care sectors is newly appointed Minister Mark Butler. He joins us now in Adelaide. Well, you heard that. That's quite a job to do, isn't it? Where to start?

MARK BUTLER: I think that the two key priorities that Anthony Albanese the Prime Minister has outlaid for our government is, first of all, making it easier to see a doctor and strengthening Medicare; and secondly, as your introduction indicated, fixing the aged-care crisis. I mean, there is no truer test of a decent society than how we support older Australians, those who worked hard for decades and paid their taxes, raised their kids, and built this society that we're so lucky to live in. And I think Australians have frankly been devastated to see the state of our aged care system, not only during the COVID pandemic but before that. The Royal Commission titled their interim report Neglect, and that said everything we needed to know as a government about what we need to do to improve the aged care sector. We'll be focusing very heavily on workforce - getting nurses back into nursing homes, making sure that carers have more time care and improving the wages of some of the most underpaid people in the community.

CHARLES CROUCHER: They're all long-term challenges. In the really immediate term though, we're seeing COVID-related deaths in facilities now averaging around 11 people or more a day. Now, many families are seeing that and withdrawing loved ones from aged care. How are you going to fix that problem in the immediacy?

MARK BUTLER: I've already started talking to our department about how we can improve things in aged care in terms of COVID preparedness particularly - that's obviously things like making sure everyone has the personal protective equipment they need. But particularly we make sure that aged care residents are getting those crucial fourth boosters, those fourth shots, the winter doses we're calling them, for people who are vulnerable they are particularly important to protect against this Omicron variant that's running rampant still through Australia. So I want to know what we're doing to make sure that every aged care resident who's eligible for it - so they've had their booster four months ago - is getting that shot in their arm as well as the flu vaccination as well, because we're seeing a flu season- a very significant flu season for the first time in a couple of years as well, and that will have an impact on the most vulnerable Australians.

LEILA MCKINNON: Yeah, well one of the pre-election promises was a 25 per cent pay rise for nurses, carers and other aged care staff. Is that doable? Will you stand by that?

MARK BUTLER: I've already written, along with Anika Wells, our fantastic new Aged Care Minister, to the Fair Work Commission. I did that late last week only within 24 hours of being sworn in, asking the Fair Work Commission leave to become a part of those proceedings and make a submission to those proceedings. That's what the Royal Commission recommended the Australian Government should do, because after all, the Australian Government funds aged care, they regulate aged care. Scott Morrison pretended it wasn't his job, but we know it's critical that the Commonwealth Government be at the table to discuss the need to lift aged care wages. You know, aged care workers get paid less than people working in a zoo, caring for animals, feeding animals. That simply is not fair, but it's also not sustainable if we're going to get the number of aged care workers, nurses, carers and other workers we need today but particularly are going to need into the future as our population continues to age.

CHARLES CROUCHER: Moving to healthcare and the health portfolio - I mean, the healthcare system is right now on the brink of collapse. Frontline workers are burnt out. We know that there are patients waiting hours for care. In many state cases there are ramping situations. How do you fix that, in the short-term again?

MARK BUTLER: The first thing the Commonwealth Government can do is make it easier to see a doctor, because what we know is that because people are finding it harder and harder to get into their GP, they're paying more because the last government froze Medicare rebates for six years. People end up at the emergency department. They've got no choice if they simply can't get into a GP. They're there for conditions that could quite adequately and properly be dealt with by a GP in a practice, if only they could find one. So we're focussed on making it easier to get to see a doctor, to make it cheaper to see a doctor and to make sure particularly that those things that happen when your kid falls off a skateboard, don't end up in an emergency department but instead end up in an urgent care service that a GP is able to provide in the community.

So that strengthening Medicare is a critical focus, but also fixing the aged care crisis will take pressure off our hospitals. Far too many older Australians in aged care are being removed from their facility to an emergency department for conditions that could be cared for in the facility if there were the proper staff in place. So those are two things we can do fairly quickly, but the Prime Minister has also indicated that unlike his predecessor he is willing to sit down and talk constructively with premiers about what's happening in our hospital system, and he'll be doing that over the coming weeks as National Cabinet finally reconvenes.

LEILA MCKINNON: All right, Minister, thank you very much for your time. That's Mark Butler all the way from Adelaide.


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