Minister for Health and Aged Care - joint press conference - Friday 28th October

Read the transcript of a Minister Butler, Sharon Claydon MP, Pat Conroy MP and Meryl Swanson MP press conference on GP Access After Hours clinics; Urgent Care Clinics; hospital funding.

The Hon Mark Butler MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care

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SHARON CLAYDON, MEMBER FOR NEWCASTLE: Good morning everyone. I cannot tell you how much joy it brings me to return from Canberra along with all of my Hunter Labor colleagues and the Labor Minister for Health on the very first day out of Canberra to prioritise Newcastle and the Hunter region, in announcing the restoration of funds for our GP Access After Hours service. I don't need to tell you how much this service means to our families in this region. More than 70,000 families rely on the services of GP Access After Hours. I'm going to hand straight across to our Minister Mark Butler, who's got some terrific news for our region, and more importantly for GP Access After Hours. Thanks, Mark.

MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE, MARK BUTLER: Thank you so much, Sharon, apologies for being late, particularly apologies because it's meant that we can't be joined this morning by the Member for Hunter Dan Repacholi, who campaigned just so hard on health policy in the lead into the May election. He's been taken to other events. But I'm particularly pleased as well as being joined by my colleagues Meryl Swanson, Pat Conroy and Sharon Claydon, and Annette and Lee, who have been stalwarts of this GP Access After Hours program here in Newcastle and the Hunter, they have been able to join us here this morning as well.  

Our Budget on Tuesday night focused on delivering on the promises that we made to the Australian people at the May election campaign. It delivered responsible cost of living relief in areas like childcare, also delivered the biggest cut to the cost of medicines in the 75-year history of the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. Obviously great for the hip pockets of millions of Australian patients who've been struggling with the cost of medicines, given everything else that's happening in household budgets, but also good for their health because we know that as many as a million Australian patients every year go without a medicine that their doctor has prescribed as important for their health because they can't afford it. So delivering on our promises and delivering responsible cost of living relief.  

I'm particularly delighted that we are able to come to the Hunter and say we delivered on the promises we made to your community about better health services. In addition to those nationwide deliveries like on cheaper medicines, there are a particular number of commitments that the Labor team here in the Hunter Valley campaigned very, very hard on. I'm just going to run through a couple of them before I get to the GP Access After Hours program.  

The Kaden Centre has been delivering extraordinary exercise services to cancer patients and some other patients with chronic diseases in this region. For four years, they've delivered those services to over 1200 patients with very, very serious diseases, but with excellent results, working closely with clinicians here at the John Hunter Hospital. 

As a result of COVID they were going to have to close their doors and stop offering that terrific service. We committed $1 million over four years to be able to ensure that they could open their doors and continue the services they've been delivering over the last several years. And I'm delighted that on Tuesday night's Budget, we were able to deliver on that promise.  

Meryl Swanson also campaigned very hard on a Medicare licence for an MRI machine that's been in place for a number of years at the Maitland Hospital, but not able to deliver Medicare-rebatable services to her community. I know this is something her community campaigned very hard on as well. And I know Meryl’s delighted that again on Tuesday night, we were able to deliver on the promise that we made to the people of her community.  

I'm especially delighted though, that were able to announce funding for six years for the Hunter GP Access After Hours service that's been really a nation leader in the area of GP and nursing after hours services for about 20 years in this region. They had experienced a number of cuts from the Liberal Party which had meant that the Calvary Mater service had to close its doors on Christmas Eve last year. 

And the other four services - Belmont, in Pat Conroy’s electorate, Maitland in Meryl Swanson’s electorate, the Toronto service in Dan Repacholi’s electorate, and the service here at John Hunter in Sharon's electorate had started to have to reduce their services.  

Now, after lots of lobbying from the Labor team here in the Hunter Valley, we committed at the last election to restore those cuts from the Liberal party to the tune of about $2.5 million dollars to ensure that those services could be restored to their pre-existing levels. When we got into government, though, we discovered the situation was even worse than we feared, and that the Liberal Party had plan to shut this service entirely from the first of July next year. 

So we've had to find $17.5 million dollars over the Budget – four years - to ensure that we can deliver on the promise that we made to the people of Newcastle and the Hunter Valley at the last election. And we've found that money to ensure that this service can be restored to its pre-existing levels, looking after, as I understand it, between 70,000 and 75,000 families in this region each and every year.

ANNETTE CURRUTHERS: Thank you so much, Minister. I can't tell you how delighted we are that our local politicians, Sharon, Pat, Meryl and Dan listened and understood our issues about the travesty of the cuts that happened to this service. We believe it's the best After Hours service in Australia. For the last 12 months when we really needed it most, we haven't been able to see the number of patients who wanted to, and they've ended up in the emergency departments, or not receiving a service. So we are absolutely delighted that we can now reinstate the service to just bring back the same number of patients that we used to see. And it's such a good thing for the patients in Newcastle. The GPs are grateful because they can collaboratively make sure that their patients receive after hours care. And the service is 20 years old next year. This is the longest promise of funding - six years of funding - that we have had the entire time it's been opened so we can relax and get on providing services for the community. And we are very, very grateful that we've been listened to.

LEE FONG: I’d just like to reiterate the comments of the Minister and my colleague Annette. Speaking as secretary of the Hunter GP Association, GP Access After Hours is unquestionably, not just an important part of our local community, but a vital part of our local community. The fact that there were cuts and there had to be some reduction in services was a tragedy, especially heading into the period that we did in the middle of COVID. So it's incredibly welcome to have this news, that there's an assurance of the future of the service. That was by no means there before. And so a massive thanks to Mark Butler, and to all the local members, for listening to, hearing the people of the Hunter, hearing the doctors of the Hunter, in ensuring the future of this service. Thank you.

PAT CONROY, MEMBER FOR SHORTLAND: This is great news for the Hunter and I'm yet to meet a single Hunter family who hasn't had cause to use this service. I know my family has needed it many times, and it's always been there for us. So it's great. This was our number one election commitment to fight for greater health care in our area, and I want to pay tribute to Mark Butler and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese on delivering on his commitment. As Mark said, when we came into government, we found the situation was much worse than we feared. The last Liberal Government not only cut the service, they had plans to end the service. If they'd been re-elected, the service would have gone from all five locations, and this much-loved service would have disappeared. Instead, Mark Butler has found $28 million over six years to give the funding certainty that Annette has talked about and that's great news for Hunter families. That's great news for Lake Macquarie families, and also complements another great announcement we made around Distribution Priority Access areas, which meant that we reverse the shambolic and disastrous decision of the last government to prevent government scholarship doctors and international trained doctors from working in our general practices. A decision that caused so much distress for our community. So this is a great day for the Hunter. It's a great day for Lake Macquarie in particular.

MERYL SWANSON, MEMBER FOR PATERSON: Thanks, everyone. Thank you, Mark, for being here at the John Hunter. And thank you, Sharon, Pat and Dan in his absence, but the big thanks has to go to people like Annette and Lee who have worked so hard to provide GP Access After Hours and fight for that service. And on the way over here, one of our travelling companions said it is the best service. So here in the Hunter, we know that if you've got your health, you've got the most important thing in your life. In the Hunter people have been very vocal, they have protested with their votes and said we need better health care. Well today, the Albanese Government through Health Minister Butler has delivered on that promise. And I'm particularly proud to say that not only will this take some of the pressure off Maitland Hospital in terms of the emergency waiting room hours - we know that they are absolutely horrendous - let's not gild the lily, it's been so bad for those people and for staff who are trying to see to people in emergency. And on top of that now, we have an MRI machine that will have a full Medicare rebate, I just want to thank my community who have stood beside me in this spot. And again, I can't thank Minister Butler enough, because he has backed me and listened to the calls of our community. And Maitland is getting the health care that it most desperately needed. But more importantly deserved. Thanks so much.

JOURNALIST: Minister, in regards to the after hours service, how do you plan to expand these services when there is a GP shortage right now?

MINISTER BUTLER: I might see if Lee or Annette want to add to that. But we're providing funding to the local Primary Health Network on the condition that the services are restored to their pre-existing levels. All of the indications from the local GP community are that they're able to do that: that GPs are able to go back onto the roster, that is quite well known in this community. But I'm very confident that once this money flows, once there's the security that Annette talked about, with a very long funding commitment of six years, GPs will come to the table and make sure that the service that they enjoy delivering to the Hunter Valley community for so many years will continue into the future.

JOURNALIST: Will the New South Wales Government be involved in funding the program at all? I know there's been a bit of confusion over that in the past.

MINISTER BUTLER: The New South Wales Government did reduce or even cut entirely, I think some of the funding that they were providing, which strikes me as an unusual decision, we've decided to step in and take full responsibility for the funding of this service.

JOURNALIST: When will the services go back to full capacity?

MINISTER BUTLER: I’ve indicated to my Department, I want the funds flowing as soon as they possibly can. It's obviously going to take a few months, I think, to organise the rosters and such like, but we want to see this this service restored over the next few months.

JOURNALIST: Can you give us an update on the Cessnock Hospital Urgent Care Clinic and other campaign promises? What level of funding and when that may be up and running.

MINISTER BUTLER: The Urgent Care commitment at Cessnock was one of 50 Urgent Care Centres we're committed to delivering over the course of next year, and we remain on track to deliver on that promise as well. There's been huge interest from all state and territory governments, including the New South Wales Government, to partner with us in the planning of that service.

Obviously, we've got to make sure that we get the protocols right, with local hospitals services, like the John Hunter here, and some of the smaller hospitals through the Hunter Valley. We've got to make sure we’ve got the protocols right with ambulance services, so that only people going to the Urgent Care Centre should be there, rather than at a full hospital emergency department. Those negotiations are proceeding very, very well. And I'm confident based on my advice that we will deliver on that promise next year.

JOURNALIST: Almost $2.5 billion has been cut in public hospital funding. And this has happened at the John Hunter Hospital here is under investigation for claims that books have been cooked and staff don't have any faith in the leadership system. How is it fair that funding is being cut from public health systems? How is that supposed to help the situation here at John Hunter?

MINISTER BUTLER: Let me talk about the situation more broadly and then come back to the situation here at the Hunter. Hospital funding arrangements have been in place for some years now. There's an agreement that the former Federal Government signed with every state government including the New South Wales Government, that provides funding on the basis of activities.  

So what happens is that the New South Wales Government makes a report about the number of people coming through their emergency department, the number of elective surgeries undertaken, so on and so forth, they then send us a bill and we pay that bill based on their activity. 

Now activity has obviously declined over the course of COVID, particularly in the area of elective surgery. So the bill that New South Wales and Victoria and some other states have sent us, was lower than would have been projected before COVID. I don't think that would be of any surprise to someone who understands how hospital funding works. 

I have no doubt that that activity is going to rebound, it's going to rebound pretty quickly. There's a lot of elective surgery that has been deferred. And when that activity rebounds, the bill that is sent by the New South Wales and other state governments will be higher than it is right now. So the way in which hospitals are funded and have been funded for years essentially follows activity. So when the state governments send us a bill, we send the check. And that's what's happened here.

JOURNALIST: Minister, The AMA argues that the reason the hospital's forecasting lower activities is because they don't have the funds at the moment. So by taking more money away, could you be making it worse?

MINISTER BUTLER: If that is the position the AMA is putting, it represents a misunderstanding of the hospital funding arrangements. The state governments all know, when I had a meeting with all of our Health Ministers last night, the state governments all know that we will pay our share of every piece of activity that is undertaken in state hospital system. So as that activity returns, as we move into a new phase of the pandemic, as elective surgery starts to rebound, state governments are fully confident that the Commonwealth will pay its share for every piece of activity in a hospital.

JOURNALIST: The AMA argues that the system that you're using to allocate funding is flawed and it needs to change. Do you agree with that?

MINISTER BUTLER: No, I don’t. The idea of funding hospitals for activity has been in place for many years. It's a system that was put in place under the former Labor Government and continued under Prime Minister Turnbull and Prime Minister Morrison. The current agreement, it was signed by every single government in Australia - it wasn't signed by the Albanese Government - it was signed by the New South Wales State Government, all of the other state governments and the Morrison Government to continue to fund hospitals based on activity. What it means is that state governments have utter confidence that if their activity surges in a hospital, the Commonwealth will pay its share. 

JOURNALIST: The fact that it's based on activity as well, and sorry, I’m going back to the John Hunter example, in a survey 82% of the surgeons that responded said they had actually changed their clinical procedures, how would that affect the bill and is it right that the funding is cut if the activity has been changed? 

MINISTER BUTLER: I'm not I'm not familiar with the details of what's happening here at the John Hunter Hospital, I have read some reports about that, which I think also indicate New South Wales Health has intervened to have a look at what's happening here at the John Hunter. So I'm just not in a position to answer the detail of activity and billing arrangements here at the John Hunter.  

But the system has been in place for many years. It's overseen by independent hospital administrators that are jointly appointed by all state governments and the Commonwealth - independent bureaucrats that monitor the activity that is sent to them by state governments. And the Commonwealth gets a bill for that activity. It's as simple as that. And when we get the bill, we pay the check. Thanks, everyone.  

CARRUTHERS: The really special thing about GP Access After Hours is that it actually supports the GP workforce. So for example, you have just a few GPs on at night who are caring for the patients right across the district. So the other GPs who’ve often worked really long days, can relax for tomorrow. And what I really noticed in this time is that so many people I've seen had said to me: I can't get in to see my GP during the day, and that's why we're there at night. We're only too happy to support them, that's what the service was about. If something is urgent, and needs to be seen that day, then that's what the service is there for. 

So it’s supporting the GPs in two ways: it's seeing the patients they can manage during the day, and also, we're supporting them at night. So they have a break. And that's the real special quality of the service. I mean, we know that there is a GP shortage now, because we've seen some very busy GPs hanging out through COVID that are now retiring. 

And I know the Minister is very concerned about the issue that only 13.8% of doctors are now choosing to do general practice and I know he's thinking about how that can be addressed because general practice is such an important part of the health system. Good GPs do lots of preventative care and take people out of hospital, and that's what the system should be doing. 

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