ANDY PARK, HOST: Mark Butler is the Federal Health Minister. Welcome to you, Minister.
MINSTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE, MARK BUTLER: Thank you, Andy.
PARK: You'd have to admit that if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it's a duck. And a duck in this case is a broken election promise, isn't it?
BUTLER: It's not at all. I said on countless occasions that these Urgent Care Clinics would be delivered through the course of the 2023-24 financial year, including when I announced it on the Insiders program during the election campaign. So, I'm not quite sure where the ABC got this date of the 1st of July. The money was only available from the 1st of July 2023-24, and we've been undergoing a very detailed process with state and territory governments to agree on the locations and importantly to agree the scopes of practice of these clinics. And they are, as I've said on countless occasions, going to be opened over the course of calendar 2023. And I'm very confident that all of the 58 clinics, ultimately, we ended up with more than the 50 clinics I originally promised, all 58 clinics will be operating by the end of this calendar year.
Now, as you said in your introduction, we haven't been able to flick a switch and have them all operate every single hour that we were promised. Some of them are indicating that they're going to take a little while to get to the full 8am-10pm hours as they recruit staff. But they're all going to be operating seven days a week. All of the ones that are open now are operating seven days a week. They'll all be operating those extended hours. And importantly, Andy, they'll be all bulk billed - so they are free of charge - and all you need to take is your Medicare card.
PARK: I want to play that little bit of audio from an interview that you did during the election campaign in April last year on Insiders with David Speers. Take a listen.
DAVID SPEERS: When would these 50 clinics be up and running?
BUTLER: If we're elected, we'll have them up and running next year. We want to see them up and running in the next financial year, commencing 1st of July 2023.
SPEERS: All 50.
PARK: Doesn't that differ with your recollection of what's happened to you?
BUTLER: No, I said in the next financial year, 2023-2024, commencing on the 1st of July 2023. So, the original indication and you'll see that in our pre-election costings was that they would be rolled out over the course of the financial year starting 1st July 2023. After talking to states and to the sector, we've been able to pull that back so that none would be opening in the first half of 2024, which was, you know, implicit in the answer I gave to David Speers just then, because that is the financial year starting the 1st of July 2023, it runs for 12 months. That was when the money was going to start to roll out. We've been able to get to a position where they will be all open by the end of calendar 2023.
PARK: But Minister, I mean, I'm not sure what sort of batsman you are, but your current delivery rate is what, 24 clinics in 17 months? You still have 34 to go before the next election. Your strike rate is going to be beaten by the remaining overs, so to speak. You're not going to reach this target, aren't you?
BUTLER: I've said they'll be open before the end of this calendar year, and I'm very confident about that. We've been opening a couple a week at the moment. We've got a range of other jurisdictions where openings will be happening over the course of the next couple of months. I've been monitoring this very closely, and I'm very confident that all of the clinics will be open operating before the end of calendar 2023, which is what I've said right through the course of the last 12 or 15 months.
PARK: What has been the hold-up?
BUTLER: First of all, we sat down with every state and territory government, they were very keen to partner with us on this and we were very clear that we needed these operators - this is a very new model of care, Andy, in Australia, it's quite common in many other countries, but we wanted to make sure that they operated hand in glove with state hospital systems. We said that we wanted to be clear that the state and territory governments agreed on the locations we'd indicated, there have been some minor changes to that to make sure that they operate in the best possible and most effective hospital catchment areas. We want to make sure that there are clear operational protocols between these clinics, ambulance services and hospital emergency departments so that people are going to get care at the right place, and we've been able to agree on that in a relatively short period of time and then go out for a competitive process in each of those regions. And as I said, we will get to a position whereby the end of this calendar year, as I indicated on countless occasions, all of those clinics will be up and running. They’re already making a very real difference where they are up and running.
PARK: Well, I question that because, I mean, of these clinics, you know, you promised they would open between eight and ten with no appointment needed. So why are less than half of the 24 currently not staying open after ten?
BUTLER: As I said to you in my first answer to that question, a number of the providers have indicated that as they recruit staff, they're going to take a little while to get to the full range of hours where that's happening. We've been consulting with local hospital emergency departments. These are all located in a particular hospital catchment that has longer than average waiting times at their emergency departments for particular types of presentations. We are working very closely with them to work out: what are your peak hours for presentation and what period will be most important for us to take pressure off hospital emergency departments. As I said, we can't flick a switch and suddenly every single hour is covered. I think your listeners know, as with every other health system around the world, there is a workforce challenge in the health care system at the moment – around the world. Some have said we're going to open for a certain number of hours. They are all operating seven days a week and as we recruit more staff, we'll be able to extend those hours to the full range that we indicated would be an important part of our commitment.
PARK: Federal Health Minister Mark Butler is here. We're talking about Labor's promise to deliver at least 50 Urgent Care Clinics here on Drive. The majority of active Urgent Care Clinics at the moment are in Labor-held metropolitan electorates. That piques my interest.
BUTLER: When we made the commitment, about 50/50 were Labor/Coalition held electorates. If you exclude the ACT, which is an unusual case because the one commitment we made there has been split across five different sites at the request of the ACT Government. If you just put aside the ACT for a second and count them as one, once they're all open by the end of this year, 32 clinics will be in what are now Labor held electorates, bearing in mind a number of them when we made the commitment were not Labor held electorates, but 32 in Labor held electorates, 22 in non-Labor held electorates. A pretty fair spread from a political point of view, I think all of your listeners would agree. But we made the decisions on locations based on hospital emergency department waiting time data, particularly for the semi-urgent and non-urgent categories of presentations - so that's category four and category five. We then sat down with all of the state and territory governments, as I indicated to you, went through those locations pretty carefully, there have been a few changes based on feedback from states and territories. There have been a couple of additions as well. For example, in Queensland we’ve agreed to add two additional sites, one at Townsville, one at Toowoomba. It's a pretty fair and transparent process that I think doesn't just pass the pub test but will pass any other test as well, Andy.
PARK: And just on another issue, in May, you announced that reforms will be introduced to ban the import of nicotine and non-nicotine vapes and vaping products with only licenced pharmacists permitted to import and sell them to people with a prescription from their GP. When will these rules come into effect?
BUTLER: I've indicated a number of times publicly I want that import control put in place by the end of the year. We've been working very hard -
PARK: Sorry, financial year? Just to rehash an old argument.
BUTLER: By the end of this calendar year. We've been working very hard with states and territories. Our initial advice was that we might need to have nine different pieces of legislation, so going through the Commonwealth Parliament and all states and territories, we're now confident that we can do this just through a single piece of legislation in the Commonwealth to get the reforms we're hoping to get through the Parliament. And the first stage of that will be an import regulation that bans the imports of these vaping products that I hope to get through before the end of this year. I've been very public about that. We've got terrific support from all state and territory governments on this and it's important we get this through as soon as possible.
PARK: Mark Butler, Federal Health Minister, appreciate your time. Good afternoon to you.
BUTLER: Thanks, Andy.