Minister for Health and Aged Care – interview on Sky News – 10 August 2023

Read the transcript of Mark Butler's interview with Peter Stefanovic on Sky News.

The Hon Mark Butler MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care

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HOST, PETER STEFANOVIC: The Coalition will move to block 6 million Australians from getting access to cheaper medicines from next month, sparking a Senate showdown today. Let's go to Canberra. Joining us live is the Health Minister, Mark Butler. Minister, good to see you. Thanks for your time. So how are you going as we speak with negotiations with the crossbenchers?
MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE, MARK BUTLER: We think the Senate's got a very clear choice this morning: either back those 6 million patients you talked about - halving the cost of medicines that they're on, not just for years, but often for decades or the rest of their lives, but also freeing up millions of GP consults currently used just to get in the routine, repeat script. Those millions of consults will be freed up. We know they're desperately needed out there in the community for clear health conditions. And it will improve medication compliance, too. We know that from evidence overseas: pretty much every country we usually compare ourselves to has 60 or 90-day scripts for these ongoing chronic health conditions. So the Senate can either back all that - supported by every patient group in the country, supported by every doctors’ group – or they can support the Coalition and the powerful pharmacy lobby that has been blocking this for five years, since it was first recommended by our medicines experts.
STEFANOVIC: Have you got any of the crossbenchers over the line, though, this morning?
BUTLER: We'll see when the vote comes. We've had really terrific negotiations with the crossbenchers. I'm really grateful. They've all been very open with me being able to put the case and also explain to them all of the reinvestment that I committed to when I first announced. We will save $1.2 billion as a Commonwealth Government from this measure, but I committed to reinvesting every single dollar of that back into the pharmacy sector and I've held to that commitment. And the way in which we reinvest it has been very much informed by my discussions with the crossbench, particularly around making sure that we give good support to smaller rural pharmacies.
STEFANOVIC: Well we had Jacqui Lambie on the programme on Monday and she got very heated when it came to the Pharmacy Guild. Here she was just as a reminder.
SENATOR JACQUI LABMIE: When you are using people in aged care as ammunition, I find that quite disgusting by the Guild. Now get back to the table or stay at the table and keep talking. But don't come out here and say you're not communicating. Because I've heard it from your own: there is communication going on - and also from the minister's office - so please be very careful here. But seriously, this is starting to get a low blow when you are going after aged care.
STEFANOVIC: So that was in a response to a question about those Webster packs. But on the whole, I mean, is she on board with what you're trying to what you're trying to do here?
BUTLER: We'll wait and see when the vote comes on later this morning. I've had terrific discussions with Jacqui.
STEFANOVIC: But negotiations behind the scenes?
BUTLER: But can I just reinforce what she said: earlier in the week, that was perhaps the lowest of the scare campaigns, pretending that aged care residents would have to pay for their Webster packs. Maybe pay $800 a year, the Coalition and the Pharmacy Guild were saying. When they should have known, I'm sure they do know, that aged care facilities are responsible and they're funded by government to package up the medicine of an aged care resident. And they're actually specifically prohibited from charging residents for that. So they all know that. And yet, again, they use this sort of base scare campaign trying to scare older Australians So it was just a new low, I think.
STEFANOVIC: But is that an example of an unintended consequence that could occur out of pushing this policy through?
BUTLER: No, it couldn't occur because facilities are funded to do that through the aged care system, not through the pharmacy sector. So facilities are funded to do it. It's very clear in the Principles for aged care facilities, they are actually prohibited from charging residents for the packaging of their medicine, which is usually through Webster packs. So I mean, I'm sure the Pharmacy Guild knew this, the Coalition should know it. But in spite of knowing all of that, they proceeded with this scare campaign directed at the most vulnerable members of our community. It was complete rubbish.
STEFANOVIC: So the big issue - and I was very critical of that too, on Monday too, because it is grossly unfair - but the big issue from the Guild's point of view, as well as the Coalition, is jobs and it's businesses. So can you give any guarantees that pharmacies, in particular in regional areas, won't be forced to close or have jobs lost.
BUTLER: As I said, we're reinvesting every dollar that we save with a particular focus on small rural pharmacies. I announced the latest tranche of our reinvestment package last week, I think. And that will make sure that small rural pharmacies, who tend to rely more on dispensing income from dispensing medicines than on general retail, for example, selling perfumes and jelly beans, and the like. So we're very focused on that. That will cover any loss of income over the course of the next 12 months, taper down to 90% and really give them time to adjust to this new thing. But bear in mind, this is a very healthy sector. It's protected from competition. It's the only part of the health sector where you can't open up a new pharmacy in an existing community. The revenue has grown by 30% over the last four years. The Pharmacy Guild's own figures show that the average gross profit of a pharmacy is 34%, which is higher than any other sector of the private medical services industry. This is not nothing, but it, I think, is a very manageable impact on revenue for a strong, profitable, growing sector of the economy, that will deliver very serious hip pocket relief to 6 million patients during a global cost of living crisis.
STEFANOVIC: Okay, why not pause it, for now, to get the Guild and to get the Coalition on board, because they say negotiations have been rushed?
BUTLER: This is a bit of spin from the Coalition. They say this is about a delay. Well, I've read their motion. The motion doesn't seek to delay this measure six months. The motion in the Senate this morning that they're moving seeks to disallow it. So it knocks it over altogether. This is not a new recommendation. It was made to the former government five years ago, and the Coalition and the pharmacy lobby opposed it, then. The Coalition and the pharmacy lobby oppose it now. And I have no doubt that in six months’ time, the Coalition and the pharmacy lobby will still oppose it. In the five years since the medicines experts that manage our Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme - the PBS - since those experts first recommended this measure to the former government, patients have paid literally hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars in fees that they shouldn't have had to pay, if the government had done the right thing and backed patients instead of this powerful pharmacy lobby.
STEFANOVIC: Okay, That's the Health Minister, Mark Butler. Appreciate your time, Minister.


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