MICHAEL ROWLAND, HOST: It's a move welcomed by doctors, but pharmacists are much less convinced. From today, a big shake up of the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme will allow millions of Australians to get 60-days’ worth of medicines on a single script. The Federal Health Minister Mark Butler joins us now from Adelaide. Minister, very good morning to you.
MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE, MARK BUTLER: Good morning, Michael.
ROWLAND: So, it's been the subject of great controversy. Certainly, the pharmacists are pushing back. Just remind our viewers why the Government is doing this.
BUTLER: I should also say it's been welcomed by every patient group because this is a great measure for patients. From today, almost 4 million patients will be able to ask their doctor for a 60-day script for around 100 common medicines to treat ongoing health conditions, things like heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, osteoporosis and much more. These are medicines that people aren't on just for a short period of time. They're on them year in, year out, sometimes for decades, or even the remainder of their lives.
Now you'll effectively get two scripts for the price of one, halving the cost of your medicines. It will also mean fewer visits to the GP and to the pharmacist, as well as more money in your hip pocket. And that's why every doctor's group, every patient group has supported this measure – a measure that we see in pretty much every other country to which we would usually compare ourselves.
ROWLAND: Pharmacy Guild insists this move will see pharmacies close around the country. Do you see that as a bit of bluster or are you worried about this?
BUTLER: This is, I think, just another scare campaign from the pharmacy lobby. This is a highly profitable industry; more profitable than any other part of the private medical services industry I can find. But we're really dedicated and committed to a vibrant future for community pharmacy, which is why every single dollar we save is being ploughed back into the community pharmacy sector, reinvested into programs that allow them to provide more services to their customers, like the National Immunisation Program, which up until now has been reserved just for doctors. Now people will be able to get access to that program at their local pharmacy.
I'm really confident community pharmacy has a strong, viable future. I recognise though that these big changes are often hard to get through. You know, we had opposition from Peter Dutton a few weeks ago in the Parliament who tried to block these savings to millions of patients, but we're committed to cheaper medicines for Australian patients.
ROWLAND: Okay. Now the Liberal Party is insisting it's going to try to overturn these changes when Parliament comes back next week. Are you concerned about that?
BUTLER: I don't understand it. I don't understand why you would block a measure that's been recommended for years by our medicines authorities, supported by every patient group – and this is the key group of people we're trying to support here – a great cost of living measure.
We know it's also good for their health, from overseas evidence it improves medication compliance by about 20 per cent and it will free up literally millions of GP consults, Michael, which your viewers know are desperately needed out there for really serious health conditions instead of GPs having to take time to issue routine, repeat scripts.
So, it's good for the hip pocket, it's good for people's individual health and it's really good for the health system as well. I just encourage Peter Dutton to stop trying to block this measure and get behind it.
ROWLAND: On another front, the ACCC is going after Qantas for allegedly selling tickets on thousands of flights that had already been cancelled. I mean they are quite simply stunning allegations. What do you think?
BUTLER: This is a pretty extraordinary story that your viewers and I have read recently, and I think Qantas rightly will have to answer to the consumer watchdog, the ACCC, but importantly also, Michael, they're going to have to answer to their customers for this. I'm glad that only over the last 24 hours or so they've cleared up this cut-off date for flight credits that so many Australians have after the COVID period. But really, ultimately, they're going to have to answer to their customers for these stories.
ROWLAND: Where does this leave Qantas' reputation in your view?
BUTLER: They've got a bit of work to do to explain themselves to their customers, I think, with this run of stories, just this latest one about these so-called ghost flights being sold to unsuspecting customers, they'll obviously have to answer to the watchdog for that. But this is a long-trusted brand for Australians, one that's got the best safety record of any airline around the country. It's something that Australians traditionally have cherished, but they're going to have to answer for these stories that I think are causing concern among their customers.
ROWLAND: At the same time, the government is blocking Qatar Airways from bringing more flights into Australia saying you want to protect the national interest. Mark Butler, what in your view here is the national interest?
BUTLER: Michael, I'm the Health Minister. The Transport Minister makes these decisions on the basis of their view, and this has been a decision made from time to time by transport ministers of Labor persuasion and of Liberal persuasion. They consult their colleagues who have an interest in this matter – that doesn't include the Health Minister. I'm focused on the job I have to do to strengthen Medicare and to deliver cheaper medicines.
ROWLAND: Well, she's a colleague of yours, do you support Catherine King's decision?
BUTLER: Of course I do. I know that she makes every decision as Transport and Infrastructure Minister in the national interest. She's got strong experience. She understands the industry well. And of course, I support her decision. But I wasn't a minister she consulted, obviously, I'm not subject to the detail. But she's a terrific Transport Minister, who's making some really difficult decisions at a time when the industry is trying to get back up on its feet after the years of COVID.
ROWLAND: One of your other colleagues, the Assistant Treasurer, Stephen Jones, this week said that decision was all about protecting Qantas profitability. Stephen Jones said the quiet part out loud, didn't he?
BUTLER: The Transport Minister is responsible for this, not the Health Minister, not the Assistant Treasurer. She made the decisions weighing up, I'm sure, all of the considerations about the health of the aviation sector and most importantly, the interests of passengers. And look, I think she would have made that in utterly the right circumstance.
ROWLAND: Lots of fingers being pointed towards Catherine King. I mean, do you really think this decision will end up being sustainable?
BUTLER: Michael, as I say, I'm the Health Minister. I'm responsible for strengthening Medicare and delivering cheaper medicines...
ROWLAND: I know but there seems to be a lot of buck passing here. You’re doing it, the Prime Minister’s doing it...
BUTLER: I wouldn't expect Catherine King to answer detailed questions about cheaper medicines policy either, Michael. I’m a bit old fashioned about this. I’m appointed as the Health Minister...
ROWLAND: It's a hot button issue. You started, when we started talking about Qantas, saying it’s an issue a lot of viewers would be concerned about. Do you not think that allowing more flights in from Qatar will lead to lower airfares for all Australians, helping all Australians.
BUTLER: Look, to the extent I understand how the very complex airline industry operates, these decisions about landing slots and flight opportunities are regularly negotiated between countries. Airlines apply for them, sometimes they're granted, sometimes they're not. This is not a new issue, it's been operating that way for many years, it operates that way in other countries as well. From time to time, the transport minister has to take a decision about applications from an individual airline, at that time, they'll weigh up a whole lot of factors about the interests of passengers, the interest of the broader nation in making sure that we have good access to flight opportunities. And that's the decision that the Transport Minister has taken.
ROWLAND: Okay. Health Minister Mark Butler, really appreciate your time this morning.
BUTLER: Thank you, Michael.