Minister Butler press conference at Oran Park, Sydney - 3 November 2022

Read the transcript of Minister Butler's press conference with Member for Macarthur Dr Mike Freelander on New Shepherd Centres, COVID-19 and Professional Services Review.

The Hon Mark Butler MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care

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DR MIKE FREELANDER, MEMBER FOR MACARTHUR: I'm very excited to be here today and to say these words, to be at The Shepherd Centre at Oran Park to introduce Mark Butler and Jim Hungerford, the CEO of The Shepherd Centre. We're really excited to have them here. Great to have Mark here: Mark is a Health Minister who really understands the needs of children. We've got some very exciting announcements, with the child development unit being funded at Campbelltown with The Shepherd Centre now at Oran Park and with funding for federal Aboriginal Health Services. So it's really great to be here with Mark and with Jim Hungerford. And what a wonderful, wonderful centre this is and great for the people of Macarthur. Thanks.
MARK BUTLER, MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE: It's great to be out with Mike, who's such a rich source of advice and wisdom in the Labor caucus around health policy. This is the implementation of a really important promise that the Albanese Labor opposition made at the election campaign in May and is now delivering as the Albanese Government. Three new Shepherd Centres across the country dealing with either unmet need, particularly in the case of the two centres that have been that have been delivered in Tasmania, one in Hobart, one in Launceston, but one for the growing area of southwest Sydney here in Oran Park. The Shepherd organisation has been providing support for very young children and families with hearing impairment, hearing loss, for more than five decades. Just a terrific Australian organisation.
I very well remember 13 years ago then Prime Minister Rudd announcing that his government would support universal newborn screening for hearing loss and he did that with The Shepherd Centre because they are such a well-regarded organisation across the country in this area. Back then, only about 75 per cent of newborns were being screened for hearing loss at birth. That is now up to a universal number which allows organisations like Shepherd to intervene early and provide support to very young children and their families as well as children a little bit older than that.
I'm really delighted to be able to confirm that we are delivering on the promise we made at the election and funding $2.5 million for an expanded service here in the fastest growing part of New South Wales. We're in Oran Park and the southwestern part of Sydney is growing just so fast with lots of young families moving into this exciting area. It’s really important that they have services in their local area, rather than being expected to travel very, very long distances to provide this support.
Thank you to Jim, for the work that your organisation has been doing just for so many years now, here in Australia. But particularly thank you for your ideas of expanding the service here in southwest Sydney, but also expanding services into Hobart and Launceston because we know, on Tasmania, there has been unmet need for far too long. So we're delighted to be able to provide that service there as well.
JIM HUNGERFORD, CEO, THE SHEPHERD CENTRE: Thank you, Minister. And I do want to extend our thanks and on behalf of the many thousands of families and children who are going to benefit from this funding for the Government's commitment to establishing these three new centres, but also their commitment to help expand Hearhub, which is a digital platform that will help many thousands of Australian children and children around the world. It is such an area of need. We have thousands of children in Australia who are not receiving the services that they require. With this help, they will have fantastic outcomes in their life. So thank you very much, Minister, and thank you for the Government's commitment.
JOURNALIST: I just had a couple of questions about the Professional Services Review. Do you think it's appropriate that the AMA - which is a lobby group for doctors - has veto rights over the Medicare watchdog?
BUTLER: I've indicated before in response to a number of questions about this issue that I've asked for two reports from my department, which I'm in the process of receiving one is an analysis of Dr. Faux’s work that has underpinned much of the reporting by your newspaper and by channel two. And that's very important, because I want to understand the difference between the numbers being extrapolated from Dr. Faux’s report and some of the earlier reports, such as the one from the Audit Office a couple of years ago. So that's the first piece of work. And I've also said as a new government that I think it's appropriate for me to receive a report about the general compliance programmes, some of which are educative, some of which are a response to either data analysis or other tip offs around inappropriate billing behaviour - and that will include the PSR programme, the Professional Services Review programme. So I've asked for those reports. And in due course, I'll have more to say about them.
JOURNALIST: In terms of just a general question about regulators and how they're structured, you know, do any other lobby groups in Australia, for example, have the same legislated power? And is that the appropriate in your view, in terms of having a strong regulator?
MARK BUTLER: Yeah, I understand the nature of the question. I've just indicated, though, that I think it's appropriate that I receive that broader report I've asked for from the department, which will include obviously, the statutory framework that you've referred to. But I want to receive that report before I, before I comment publicly on it.
JOURNALIST: Are you aware of any other regulators with that same setup?
MARK BUTLER: I'm not off the top of my head. But that's not to say that there aren't any. And that may be included in the report I receive from the department. But as I say, I think the appropriate, measured way to deal with this is to receive that report. And I'll have more to say in due course.
JOURNALIST: What have you made of the AMA’s response to the research and to Dr Faux’s findings? Do you think that research has merit and or you think think that they're protecting doctors, perhaps at the expense of patients and the wider findings?
BUTLER: As I've said, I've asked for analysis of Dr Faux’s report. I don't intend to comment on how other organisations might have responded to your reports. I've asked for an analysis of Dr. Faux’s report. I have indicated that it is certainly - I think my language was “way out of whack” - very different to the numbers that have been the subject of advice to the government before, including the former government, including a report from the ANAO. But I don't want to jump to any particular conclusion about the numbers being extrapolated from Dr. Faux’s report. I want to wait until I receive that analysis from the department. I'll have more to say in due course.
JOURNALIST: We've seen a report this morning that the New South Wales Chief Health Officer is expected to issue some sort of a warning about another surge of COVID-19 in the state, and there have been similar warnings in other states. I'm just wondering, what is your message to people about the virus heading into summer? And should people be worried about the emergence of these new sub-variants?
BUTLER: Thank you for that. I've taken my own briefings from the Commonwealth Chief Medical Officer in recent days about where the state of COVID is at right now. We've seen over the last number of weeks a very steep decline from the peak of the winter wave, which happened in about late July. The seven-day average of COVID case numbers right now is still running at less than 1/10 of the peak in July. The last week saw an increase of about 2 per cent, the week before had seen a decrease of about 14 per cent. The reports that I'm receiving indicate that there has been a slight increase in case numbers in two states, in particular. That was the subject of the weekly report that was published last Friday. There will be another report published tomorrow.
But there does seem to be an indication from some of the states that there is evidence of a small increase at this stage in case numbers, as I say, coming off a very big decline that we've seen over the last couple of months. We're monitoring that very, very closely. My department, the Chief Medical Officer is working very closely with states and other organisations that will be an early indication of any increase in case numbers for example, aged care facilities, where there is very regular testing - daily testing - of staff. That is a good indicator of where case numbers are going.
Some months ago, generally the advice from state authorities was that we could expect to see another increase in case numbers towards the end of the year. Some states have indicated that might be as early as November. We are in November now, so it wouldn't be a complete surprise to see an increase in case numbers. And as you've indicated, there are a couple of sub-variants, additional sub-variants to the Omicron variant that have been that have been detected in other countries around the world and have started to be picked up in some of the testing here in Australia as well.
So my advice is that we're working very closely to monitor this situation, not just through formal testing, but also through the testing of wastewater, and other indicators that give us some early evidence of any substantial increase in case numbers. And I just want to reiterate really, the advice of Kerry Chant this morning, the New South Wales Chief Health Officer: that this is a timely reminder to get your booster, to make sure that you are up to date with your vaccination.
There are still 5 million Australians over the age of 16, who are eligible for a third dose but have not yet had it. For many of them, it will be more than 12 months since they had their second dose. So getting that third dose or fourth dose, if you're eligible for that and haven't had it, is going to be a very important addition to your protection. And by that, the protection of those around you. Also, if you are over 70, or if you are over 50 with a couple of risk factors to your health, then you are urged to just think about a plan, in the event that you might get COVID over coming weeks or months, a plan with your GP so that you will be able to access oral antiviral treatments. We know that they are very effective in preventing progression to severe disease, hospitalisation, or even worse.
JOURNALIST: Just one more question on the reports and analysis you were talking about. There have been calls for those to kind of be more independent process rather than internal inquiries. Is that anything that you would consider?
I've indicated before that my mind is not closed about how to move forward with this. But I'm going to do it in a measured way, after I've received a full report and had time to consider that.
JOURNALIST: Thank you.
BUTLER: Thanks, everyone.

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