Minister Butler press conference in Melbourne - 16 September 2022

Read the transcript of Minister Butler's press conference on medical research, NHMRC, eliminating hepatitis C, hospitals, hospital funding, aged care, RBA.

The Hon Mark Butler MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care

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BRENDAN CRABB AC, DIRECTOR, BURNET INSTITUTE: Good morning everybody, I'm Brendan Crabb, the director of the Burnet Institute. Welcome to the home of the Burnet Institute and to this wonderful community campus, the Alfred Hospital, the Baker Institute, Monash University, a bit of La Trobe, and Deakin. This is a really tight knit group, that Burnet is very proud to call home. 

Can I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land that we’re on, the Bunurong people, that call the nation their home, and also their close neighbours, Wurundjeri people, that also call the nation their home, and pay my respects to their elders, past, present, and emerging. 

It’s a really great pleasure to welcome the Honourable Mark Butler, the Minister for Health and Aged Care.  

The Minister and I go a long way back to previous governments, and the Minister has got a well-earned reputation as a great champion of medical research. It's very special to have you here, but also to speak specifically about medical research, which is, of course, very much in the news, much more in the news in the last two or three years than it's ever been before, for obvious reasons. 

It's medical research that provides hope for solutions to things that we don't have answers to, of course, COVID was very much in that category, as are many other health issues. 

What's perhaps lesser known is that health medical research is one of the jewels in the crown of the Australian sector, one of the things we do that is truly internationally competitive. 

Perhaps the key reason for that is a funding system that is super highly credible, a transparent, rigorous, independent system that this government and many governments in the past have overseen and treasured, and that’s particularly true for Minister Butler.  

I know the Minister has important announcements to make this morning. Can you please join me in welcoming the Minister for Health and Aged Care Mark Butler. 

MARK BUTLER, MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE: Thank you so much Brendan, it's such a pleasure to be back with the Burnet Institute, joined by Professor Caroline Homer, who in addition to being a member of the Burnet, is also the chair of the National Health Clinical Research Council - a key driver of world quality research here in Australia, as well as Margaret Hellard, Deputy Director here at Burnet who has been a key part of one of the projects we're delighted to announce today. I also want to thank Kate and Frank for a great talk about the wonderful project that's delivered through the van behind us to reach out to participants or patients with hepatitis C, and I'll come to that a little bit down the track.  

Today, I'm really pleased to announce $14 million dollars in grants from the National Health and Medical Research Council in the form of partnership grants. These are grants that are peer reviewed and decided upon by the NHMRC but are very much grants that see researchers like those here at the Burnet Institute, partner with industry, with clinicians with patient groups, and with philanthropists. 

There are 12 grants being announced today. Half of the grants yet again, announced by the NHMRC, are from Melbourne Universities, or institutes like Burnet. That just reminds us that really the quality and breadth of health and medical research here in Victoria is quite extraordinary, that 50 per cent rate of grant success for a state that comprises about 25 per cent of the Australian population is as Professor Homer knows, nothing particularly new and it reflects the extraordinary quality and breadth of health medical research in this great state of Victoria. I have to say it pains me to say that as a South Australian, but it is a truth and has been for many, many years.  

I want to say a bit about this grant in particular because it goes to continuing the success, and one of the great public health achievements of the last 10 years. 

As Brendan said, I had some responsibility for medical research, for blood borne viruses, and sexually transmitted infections under the Rudd-Gillard Governments more than a decade ago. And back then I very well remember that there were more than 200,000 Australians diagnosed with hepatitis C, and governments and clinicians and research institutes, like Burnet, were talking about a tsunami of liver disease, liver cancer, and potential liver transplants that the country was going to have to deal with over the course of the 2020s, 2030s and beyond. 

The only treatment available at that time, Interferon, was a particularly brutal treatment - very, very hard on the system, often meaning that people weren't able to complete the treatment. 

In the 10 years since then, there has been a step change with development of direct-acting antivirals, which in 95 per cent of the cases, clear the virus completely, meaning that people are not only entirely cured of the disease, but also are cleared of the virus and are no longer infectious. This has just completely changed the story of a condition that was affecting more than 200,000 Australians at the time and was expected at that time to be one of the major public health challenges facing the country over the coming 20 years, the story has just completely changed.  

We think about 50 per cent of Australians with chronic hepatitis C now have availed themselves of this treatment and have had wonderful results. Wonderful results for them individually, but also wonderful results for the country, and the sustainability of our health system. Our challenge now is to connect that other 50 per cent of Australians with these amazing treatments, and we've got to think of innovative ways to do that. This van that reaches out to communities across Victoria with the extraordinary work of Kate is one example of that.  

One of the partnership grants that we're announcing today, led by the Burnet Institute, by Professor Stoové who is not able to be with us today, but also with Margaret Hellard, partners with The Ramsay Foundation, which has contributed a great amount of funding to this, also, with patient groups from Hepatitis Australia, and through clinicians as well. 

The partnership grants are not only fantastic because they leverage additional money to the $14 million that the NHMRC has committed to these 12 grants today, they will be matched by additional funding for a total of $39 million, so leveraging every dollar that taxpayers are contributing through the NHMRC, that's a wonderful thing in and of itself. 

But as well, we know through these partnership grants connecting the researchers to patient groups, to clinicians - from the start - that there will just be better translational outcomes, the research will be better informed by what is going to work for patients, what is going to work for clinicians.  

And Burnet has always been a great leader in this, not just doing research for its own sake, but doing research that's actually going to change the way in which clinicians practice and that will change outcomes, and improve outcomes for patients.  

It's a wonderful delight to be here at Burnet, not only to announce this great partnership grant to continue to make these extraordinary inroads in the treatment of hepatitis C, but we also have partnership grants that will assist in the treatment of cerebral palsy for children, reducing road accidents for young people, a range of grants that go to improving youth mental health, and many more things besides. 

Thank you for being here today, thank you Brendan, to the Burnet for hosting us. And I’d like to hand over to Professor Homer, the chair of the of NHMRC. 

PROFESSOR CAROLINE HOMER AO, CHAIR, NHMRC: Thank you so much Minister, and I’m very excited to be here today. Thank you for coming to the Burnet Institute, very handy for me today, very convenient. But it’s really exciting to have 12 grants being announced today, including the one that you're going to hear about in a moment. Partnership grants are quite unique, as the Minister says they bring together the researchers, state governments, federal governments, organisations, community organisations, and in the case of the one you're going to hear about now philanthropy. 

They're also unique in that applicants can come three times a year. So, when you're ready with your partners, you can apply, you don't have to wait for a whole year. And that makes a real difference to the research being able to be undertaken when it's needed by the people who need to do it. And I think as you said, the most exciting thing with partnership grants is that they're very close to translation, they're very fast impact.  

We see an impact for health and the health of Australians really fast. I'd like to finally just thank all the peer reviewers, as the Minister says these grants go through a very rigorous process of peer review. And for partnership grants, we have peer reviewers who are researchers, we also have community members, consumers, policymakers, and the people who are really going to be impacted by the grant. It's a very broad approach to looking at the quality of these studies. And we know that every one of these 14 projects over the next five years is going to make an extraordinary difference to the health of Australians. Thank you to all those peer reviewers, literally hundreds of people read these grants, then make their recommendations, and the recommendations ultimately come to them. Thank you for being here today, really delighted to now introduce Professor Margaret Hellard, Margaret is one of the chief investigators on this grant, to tell you a bit more. 

PROFESSOR MARGARET HELLARD AM, DEPUTY DIRECTOR, BURNET INSTITUTE: Thanks very much Caroline. And thank you Minister Butler for coming and thank you all for coming today. Thanks, Frank, for coming across as well, you've been a great advocate for hepatitis C. 

I congratulate everybody else who received a partnership grant.  As Minister Butler said, there has been a steam train one of the biggest medical breakthroughs, about five to 10 years ago, hepatitis C sufferers will no longer need to die from it. And Australia is making tremendous inroads into hepatitis C elimination. We are 50 per cent of the way there, but there are more people who we are still needing to be treated, and they are at risk of dying of liver cancer and liver failure. 

That can be changed, that can be stopped and this grant is about trying to find that final 50 per cent. How can we engage with that final 50 per cent? Is it innovative surveillance systems? How do we work with the affected communities? How do we work with community-based organisations, state governments, and with great philanthropists like Paul Ramsay Foundation, providing funding to engage with that final 50 per cent, what I call the final phase of hepatitis C elimination.  

Because it is possible for us to achieve this task, innovative surveillance systems, innovative approaches to care, like the van, like treatment in pharmacies, like point of care tests, we can change this, and Australia can achieve hepatitis C elimination by 2030.  

We're aiming for that we're leading the world on that; the world is looking at us to do a really good job of this.  

Australia is showing the way in hepatitis C elimination. I thank the Minister for your interest and ongoing engagement. This is something we can achieve.  

JOURNALIST: States are calling for federal health relief for pressure in hospitals. What is the federal government planning to do? 

BUTLER: At first meeting of National Cabinet chaired by Prime Minister Albanese, there was a very constructive mature discussion between the premiers, Chief Ministers and the Prime Minister about the enormous pressure that our state hospital systems across the country are facing. And as people would recall, the first Secretaries at every level of governments - the head of premier's departments, the head of the Prime Minister's department - were asked by National Cabinet to do some work and report back to National Cabinet on particularly some of those interfaces between the aged care system, the disability system like NDIS, on the one hand and our hospital system. hat work is underway. That's going to be the subject to report back to National Cabinet. And as a health minister, I can say I'm very happy that the Prime Minister and the premiers of our country are seized of this issue, that it is at that level of importance. 

JOURNALIST: Just on that what is your plan to get aged care patients out of hospital? 

BUTLER: As I said the National Cabinet has asked the heads of their departments to look at and report back in coming weeks. I expect that the National Cabinet will task, health ministers, including me, but state health ministers, as well, with the product of that work, and we look forward to that. 

JOURNALIST: Just on public hospitals in Victoria, they say inflation will wipe out 13 per cent of their budgets this year alone, has your department modelled inflation as expected across the hospital system nationally over the next four years. And will the federal budget fully cover the projected health inflation costs? 

BUTLER: That work is conducted by the Hospital Pricing Authority, which is the independent authority set up by the Commonwealth and all of the states. It is an expert body that models and then puts in place, all of the official pricing for our hospital system regularly updating that costing arrangement to reflect prices. It's doing that now particularly because of the impact that inflation over the course of this year is having on hospital systems. That work is reported to all states and the Commonwealth and it's fed into our hospital funding arrangements. 

JOURNALIST: Has the department actually modelled that? 

BUTLER: It’s not done by the Commonwealth department. It’s done by the Hospital Pricing Authority, which is a statutory authority that was set up by the Commonwealth and all of the states so that that work could be done independently, it is constantly monitoring what's happening around hospital costs and pricing.  

JOURNALIST: Can I just ask about aged care if that's okay, Stuart Brown says aged care providers will face a funding gap of almost half a billion dollars next year because of new minimum staffing rules, which they say are not fully covered by the government's new funding model, will you increase the funding and will providers who fail to meet the minimum staffing rules receive less? 

BUTLER: We don't accept the reports that I've read about the Stewart Brown report. This is a new system of funding that has begun in line with recommendations from the Royal Commission into Aged Care by the former government. It's a new system of funding that is subject of a very detailed work by independent academics and modelling by the Commonwealth department.  

It's a new system of funding that has bipartisan support. The modelling that I have seen, which follows a range of shadow assessments that were conducted by the Commonwealth Department under the former government, of aged care facilities across the country, show that almost every aged care facility will not only not be worse off, but will be substantially better off by the introduction of this new system of funding than they were under the old system of funding, including the requirement for additional staffing.  

All I can say is that we don't agree with the conclusions of the Stuart Brown report. We've undertaken, the former government and our government have undertaken exhaustive shadow assessments and modelling of the new system of funding. Obviously, I'm more than willing to continue discussions with the aged care sector about these issues. We're committed to making sure not only that every facility is not worse off, but actually, facilities are better off, so that they can provide better quality of care to older Australians. I'm very confident this new system of funding that was the begun by the former government, continued by our government, will do just that. 

JOURNALIST: (Inaudible) 

BUTLER: That question on interest rates should be directed to the Treasurer and not up to the Health Minister, with the greatest of respect. There is obviously also a review of the RBA which has been initiated by the treasurer Jim Chalmers this week, an issues paper has been released by the panel that's conducting the review and we encourage people to have a look at that issues paper and participate in the review. 

Thanks everyone. 

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