HOST, KATIE WOOLF: The rescue helicopter for CareFlight was officially launched by the Federal Government yesterday. The AW139 aircraft has already started operating, it began last month and it responded to the terrible Osprey crash that killed three US Marines. The $19.95 million investment also includes a second Medi-Jet and it does mean that medevac services are going to be available year round, from my understanding. Joining us on the line to tell us more is the Federal Minister for Health, Mark Butler. Good morning to you, Minister.
MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE, MARK BUTLER: Good morning. Good to talk to you.
WOOLF: Now, how vital are these extra air assets for the Northern Territory for CareFlight?
BUTLER: They'll make such a huge difference. Up until now, having only one helicopter means that for 110 days every year, that's about 30 per cent of the year, the helicopter is out of action just to get maintenance. So, having two helicopters in the air – and that already started last month – means that there will be 365 days per year coverage for Territorians in the Top End. As well, there's a second jet coming on which should be available for service if not late this year, then very early next year. That's going to, again, add huge capacity not just for Territorians in the Top End to get those sort of transfers down to some of the southern hospitals for very serious events, but also to project capability into the region, which is such an important part of what the terrific AUSMAT team, that's been based in Darwin pretty much since the Bali bombing, is able to do in our region. It's a huge lift in capability.
WOOLF: Yeah, they do a phenomenal job, CareFlight and indeed the AUSMAT team, they all do an incredible job. I think we as Territorians are very proud of the work that they do. In terms of the additional resources, how many patients do we anticipate are going to benefit from that fleet expansion?
BUTLER: They were telling me when I was talking to them yesterday that they're dealing with a huge increase in the number of patients. Thousands of patients every year are using the CareFlight resources. This will obviously allow them to do more than they've previously been doing, because the helicopter has been out of action for 30 per cent of the year. But what it also does is give peace of mind to Territorians. Every Australian should have access to our terrific world class healthcare system no matter where you live, whether you live in the inner suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne or whether you live in remote parts of the Northern Territory. Closing that tyranny of distance is exactly what CareFlight has been doing for so many years up in the Top End, and this additional capacity improves their ability to do that.
WOOLF: What's it going to mean for Territorians that live in remote areas and being able to respond to two different incidents out in remote areas?
BUTLER: It just gives peace of mind as much as anything. It will mean that CareFlight has so much more capacity to respond to emergencies out in remote parts of the Territory. These helicopters are very long-range helicopters. But as well, you've got the aeroplane capacity that CareFlight's had for some time. Particularly in your wet season up in the Top End, helicopters are often really the only way in which you can get people out in emergency situations and get them back to Darwin for treatment.
WOOLF: Minister, have they got adequate runways to land in some of these locations or is that now additional work that's going to be needed in some communities?
BUTLER: This is a discussion I had with CareFlight yesterday as well. There is a program they tell me that the Commonwealth's involved in assessing runways around the Territory. The wet season up there is so significant that really the only option will be a helicopter. But that's something the Commonwealth is working with the Northern Territory Government and with CareFlight on, an ongoing basis, about as well.
WOOLF: Now I know it's not the only announcement that you've been making while you are here in the Northern Territory. I understand that two new bulk billing clinics are opening in Darwin and Alice Springs pretty soon. When are they opening?
BUTLER: Up in Darwin, the Palmerston clinic will be open from the 1st of October, so in the next couple of weeks and the one in Alice on the 1st of November. This is part of the election commitment we made to open more than 50 Urgent Care Clinics around the country. They'll be open seven days a week, fully bulk billed and open for walk-in patients. Importantly, this is for people who need urgent care.
So, care that really can't wait for an appointment that sometimes might be a week in the waiting to get into your usual GP, but where you don't need to go into a fully equipped hospital. So, think about your kid falling off a skateboard and hurting their arm or getting a deep cut at home or something that isn't life threatening but certainly needs urgent attention.
The importance of this is both giving care to people when and where they need it in the community, but importantly, it's going to take huge pressure off our hospitals. We know that about 50 per cent of all the presentations to the emergency departments, for example at the RDH or at the Palmerston Hospital are for what the clinicians call non-urgent or semi-urgent conditions. So, they need to be treated quickly, but they don't need a hospital. This new capacity is going to tick a lot of boxes. It's fully bulk billed, it's open seven days and instead of having to wait for six or eight hours in an emergency department, when your kid falls off the skateboard, you can go there and get quick, free treatment. It also means the hospitals are able to focus on the sorts of conditions they were built for: the life threatening once-in-a lifetime emergencies that really do need the sort of world-class hospital treatment we have available here in Australia.
WOOLF: Minister, it probably can't come soon enough, to be really frank about it because we've had five code yellows already this year. Just last week we had another code yellow at Royal Darwin and Palmerston Regional Hospital. There's a real sense in the community at the moment, you know, that the hospitals are under enormous stress?
BUTLER: They are and this is not just in the Territory, it's not just in Australia, it's right across the world. Health systems are really strained and stressed by three and a half years of a global pandemic. What we're finding is people weren't getting the care that they needed for their non-COVID conditions because of a whole range of obvious reasons. Health resources were diverted into the COVID emergency. People were locked down, not able to see their doctor. So even yesterday, the clinicians, your Health Minister and Chief Minister Natasha Fyles, were telling me what I'm being told all around the country, which is: people are sicker than they otherwise would have been if we weren't facing that emergency.
What we've also seen as a legacy of COVID is workforce is just really crunched. There is a huge workforce shortage right across the world, including here in Australia. It's a shortage in the big cities and as always, it's a more acute shortage in places like the Northern Territory. Our hospitals are under real pressure. The Urgent Care Clinic is really designed to take some of that pressure off but health ministers, including Natasha and I, are working very hard on ways in which we can boost the workforce because that is really the major constraint we have in our hospital system right now.
WOOLF: Well, yeah, and I guess then as you've got new clinics coming online, how do we make sure we've got the staff for those in addition to the hospitals?
BUTLER: The point is that those people are going to hospitals anyway. They're going to be cared for somewhere, this isn't discretionary care. This is care that people absolutely have to have. It's about trying to get that care in the right place and that shouldn't be in a hospital emergency department that's staffed to a very high level. It should be in a primary care setting, which is what these Urgent Care Clinics will deliver.
WOOLF: Now, I know you are pressed for time. I do want to ask you, though, we've spoken quite extensively about some of the strains on the hospitals here in Darwin and Palmerston over the recent weeks. We caught up with the AMA President here in the Northern Territory, Dr Robert Parker, just last week, and we'd spoken about the fact that aged care patients are indeed occupying a number of beds in Royal Darwin and also Palmerston Regional Hospital because there are not other places for them. He said that the reality of this is like we could do with another 100 aged care beds right now?
BUTLER: That's right, and I was actually at the Palmerston Hospital visiting some of the wards there with Natasha Fyles and the clinicians to have a look at some of these pressures. Again, they are pressures right around the country. To some degree it's about having aged care beds out in the community that are properly staffed, which is why it was so important that we took our putting nurses back in a nursing homes policy to the last election. We need more registered nurses in aged care so they can care for those patients. There are some more complex issues that we're working through with states as well. Natasha Fyles and I were only talking about them yesterday.
A lot of the older patients that are stuck in hospitals right now have much more complex needs than they might have a decade ago, much higher-level of dementia, some conditions that are difficult to manage in a traditional aged care setting. So again, that's a big piece of work health ministers and I are dealing with right now. Other than the pressure on emergency departments I recognise that is probably the other major pressure on the hospital systems right now. It's one we must address.
WOOLF: What do you say to those families that are listening this morning that are under enormous stress because they actually can't get a place for their grandma or for their mum or for their dad who they're caring for at home, who has dementia or has another really serious health issue, and they are not able to get a spot for them?
BUTLER: We're doing everything that we can to address the backlog in aged care places. We put in place a huge funding boost to aged care in the May budget. The per day, per bed funding for aged care providers went up by 17 per cent in May. Very substantial additional money, but also some really important regulations to address some of the staffing shortages that really are at the heart of some of the challenges the aged care sector has had over the last several years. Your listeners would have seen them through the Four Corners report, through the Royal Commission. A lot of that was exacerbated in COVID as well. There is a real challenge in the aged care sector but we've really put our shoulder to the wheel so there are more nurses there now, there's more staff working there and there's substantial more funding for aged care providers.
WOOLF: So, can we expect any further for us here in the Northern Territory? Can we expect any further announcements or, you know, any additional beds to come online or any extra work to, you know, to try and sort this issue out?
BUTLER: Well, so again, the Northern Territory Government and I had a talk about that yesterday about some possible locations for new aged care facilities. We think we've got the funding measures in place now to encourage that investment from aged care providers. We think we've got the staffing arrangements in place, particularly around nursing being available 24 hours a day, seven days a week in aged care facilities. We think we've got that fixed now. We just need the investment to start to flow. I know Natasha Fyles is really focused on trying to help aged care providers find the land they need to be able to build that capacity and deal with those issues your listeners are rightly concerned about.
WOOLF: Federal Health Minister Mark Butler, I appreciate your time this morning. Thank you for speaking with us.
BUTLER: Good to talk to you. See you later.