Minister for Health and Aged Care - press conference - 10 December 2023

Read the Minister's transcript on the opening of the Western Medicare Urgent Care Clinic.

The Hon Mark Butler MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care

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ANDREW COHEN, CEO FORHEALTH: My name is Andrew Cohen. I am the CEO of ForHealth. I'm joined here today with Wendy Saunders from the Adelaide PHN and the Honourable Mark Butler, Health and Aged Care Minister, and also the local Member for Hindmarsh. Before I begin, I just want to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land, the Kaurna people, and also pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging.

ForHealth is the second largest general practice provider in the country. We serve more than 7 million patient visits throughout the country every year. Our mission is really about accessible health and, and universal health. We really focus on lower socio-economic areas, regional and rural areas, areas like where we are today in Royal Park where household income is 30 per cent below the median household income for the country. Hundreds of people, maybe 400 people, walk through the doors of this medical centre every day to see the doctor, to get an x-ray, a CT scan, and ultrasound, get their bloods done for chronic disease and now, for urgent but not life-threatening care. To this end, we really want to just acknowledge the Albanese Government and the work of the Health Minister for cutting through the politics of healthcare and really refocusing back on access for patients. The tripling of the bulk billing incentive is a major breakthrough for our sector and for communities like this. We're already seeing a very big difference since it has been implemented in November. At 20 of our lowest bulk billing sites, the bulk billing rate has already gone up by five percentage points. In some sites like Caringbah, in outer metro New South Wales. it has gone up by 15 percentage points, which is a really, really big difference for that community.

Urgent Care Centres are another really important change to access for patients. I think the Prime Minister commented on them this week to sort of say that the impact that they're having in the communities, and the response from the communities is much better than we or the Government had had ever envisaged. In many of our sites, more established sites, we are seeing often 50 patients a day, more than half of those say that they would have otherwise gone to the ED and 9 out of 10 of those say that they would highly recommend the service. We're also seeing meaningful impact on ED numbers. For example, our site in Browns Plains, which services the Logan area, hospital category fours and fives have come down by 10 to 20 per cent, since it's been opened. We are seeing a real change. With that, I just want to thank the Adelaide PHN for trusting us and supporting us through this process. And I want to thank our own team for establishing this clinic, which I think is going to make a really, really big difference to the community. Thank you so much for your hard work. I'll now hand to Mark Butler, the Minister for Health.
 
MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE, MARK BUTLER: Thanks so much, Andrew, I know you've had a busy schedule over the last 24 hours. Thank you for being in Adelaide with us today. ForHealth has been one of the real innovators in the area of urgent care. I'm really grateful for the work that they're putting in right across the country and taking up this opportunity which the Albanese Government has put before the healthcare sector.

Urgent Care has been a real gap in the Australian healthcare system. If you look at a range of other countries to which would usually compare ourselves, particularly New Zealand, there has been a quite mature model of care somewhere between what we'd understand to be traditional general practice and the hospital emergency department. The intention of that is to provide people in the community with a good, accessible, affordable option to receive urgent but non-life threatening care. Currently, particularly on the weekend or after hours if you're not able to get into see a GP because your child has fallen off a skateboard and broken their arm, or you have something in your eye, or you've got a deep laceration, the only option available to too many Australians has been to get to the hospital emergency department. There were about 8 million presentations to hospital EDs in Australia every single year, and about half of them - so about 4 million of them are classified as semi urgent or non-urgent, as Andrew said, category four or category five presentations. Many of them could be quite adequately cared for out in the community in a primary care setting like this, if that was available to them, particularly available free of charge on a bulk billed basis. That was really the gap that we intend to feel with our election commitment to roll out more than 50 Urgent Care Clinics across the country over the course of 2023. I'm delighted that we will meet that election commitment by the end of December. All 58 Urgent Care Clinics that we promised, will be operating seven days a week on a fully bulk billed basis. All you need to do is bring your Medicare card, for extended hours. I'm delighted that in this past week, the Western Medicare Urgent Care Clinic has started operating here at the Old Port Road Medical and Dental Centre, which has been such an important primary care service for the western suburbs of Adelaide for a very, very long time.

Already almost 90,000 services have been provided across the urgent care clinic network across Australia. As Andrew said, many of them would have gone to hospital emergency departments and often waited six, eight even 10 hours to have their kids seen after they'd fallen off a skateboard or some other urgent but non-life threatening emergency. Almost a third of the presentations are kids under the age of 15. Almost a third of them are during weekends when people find it so difficult to get a usual GP consult. Of those that are happening Monday to Friday, around one in five of them happening in the evenings as well again, when it's so hard to find a GP open. This is filling a real need out in the community. Providing affordable high-quality care completely free of charge, when and where people need it out in their community. Importantly, as Andrew said, taking real pressure off our hospital emergency departments, which we know are really strained, particularly after three or four years of a once-in-a-century pandemic. Happy to take questions.
 
JOURNALIST: In October, less than half of the promised Urgent Care Clinics had been opened. Why the delay? And do you think this has put further strain on the health system?
 
BUTLER: During the election campaign, back in 2022, I said that these would be opened over the course of the 23-24 financial year. Then as we got into government, we realised we might even be able to open them earlier than that and do them all by the end of the first half of that financial year, which would be by the end of calendar 2023. I said that very clearly through the course of last year after we first appropriated the money in our October budget. I'm delighted that the 58 clinics, we initially promised 50, but the 58 clinics that we that we budgeted for in May will all be opened by the end of December and really to stand up a network of 58 clinics across the country with a relatively new model of care has been a really significant achievement by our Government.
 
JOURNALIST: And obviously, it sounds like quite a few patients that would be presenting to ED have been diverted to these to these centres. Are we seeing a significant reduction in ramping numbers across the country as well?
 
BUTLER: We need to get that data from state hospital systems. As Andrew said the Queensland hospital system, the Queensland State Government, has provided us with some initial data which indicates that the category four and five presentations at the Logan Hospital, which is in the area of one of these Urgent Care Clinics has declined by 10 per cent since that clinic was opened. In Ipswich, west of Brisbane, that figure is closer to 20 per cent. This is very early days, but already having a very serious impact on emergency departments in the areas where these clinics have opened. But as well as that not just relieving pressure on hospital EDs, it's also meaning that people get seen much more quickly instead of waiting six, eight, 10 hours too often have their child's seen if they've suffered an accident or need to be seen urgently. They're often being seen in a very short period of time with very high-quality care, completely free of charge.
 
COHEN: Our average is 36 minutes from when they turn up across the network.
 
JOURNALIST: And some experts are saying that obviously this issue of bed blocks is to do more with patients presenting with complex needs and that more beds are needed is this also something that the government is looking into to reduce the pressure on the health system?
 
BUTLER: Earlier this week, the Prime Minister and the premiers and chief ministers through National Cabinet reached a landmark agreement around hospital funding. What that will do is lift the Commonwealth's funding to support the efforts that state governments have made to deal with ramping and to deal with elective surgery waitlists very significantly over the coming few years. But what he did immediately was to announce $1.2 billion in further funds to strengthen Medicare. To expand the urgent care model beyond what we've been opening over the course of this year, and also to deal with one of the really significant blockages within the hospital system, which is where older patients have been, particularly from aged care, admitted to hospital, but are unable to be discharged to an appropriate level of care. Health ministers are working on developing those additional models so more sophisticated aged care models that will deal with people with very complex needs, they might have very high level dementia needs, or much more significant medical complications than would usually be able to dealt with in a standard residential aged care facility. We are working with state governments really in a very broad way, about ways in which we can as the Commonwealth deliver better care to people in the community when and where they need it but also take pressure off the hospital systems much more broadly. Urgent Care takes pressure off the front door, takes pressure off the emergency departments, we recognise there is work to do on other pressures within the hospital system. And as I said, the Prime Minister announced this week, only this week significant additional funds for us to do that in partnership with states.
 
JOURNALIST: And what are the opening hours going to be like at some of these urgent care centres, especially this new one?
 
BUTLER: I think this is initially open to 8pm but I’ll let Andrew expand.
 
COHEN: It is initially open to 8pm, it takes a while until it sort of ramps up and then the idea is that they expand up to 10pm. A lot of our centres are already operating to 10pm.
 
JOURNALIST: As the Federal Health Minister, what do you make of allegations that in state hospitals, patients in ambulances are being prioritised or being asked to prioritise patients in ambulances over those waiting in the waiting rooms?

BUTLER: Questions about the operation of any particular state hospital system need to be put to relevant state ministers. I'm not across that, beyond reading reports in newspapers, so I don't have anything I can say about that. I do go back to what I said earlier, though, we recognise that hospital systems not just across Australia, but right across the world, after the pressures of three years of a once-in-a-century pandemic, are very significant. Those pressures are very significant. That's why the agreement that the Prime Minister and his first minister colleagues struck this week is so significant. It delivers funding certainty for the relatively longer term, so for the next 12 years, and that will be important, particularly for a state like South Australia that has been relatively underfunded in its hospital system from the Commonwealth compared to other states. But there's also, as I said, significant, immediate investment of additional funds to deal with some of those pressures on our hospital system.
 
JOURNALIST: As a senior member of the government, apologies this isn’t your portfolio, but certainly affects what you've been doing the past couple of weeks or so how glad is the government to have this week behind it in terms of the battling over the legislation for the immigration detainees who were released?
 
BUTLER: We’ve been working hard to deal with something of a curveball that was thrown at us by the High Court. This very significant change to legal precedent that went back to the Howard Government, so 20 years. I know those relevant ministers have been working very hard to put in place laws that protect the community. But beyond that piece of work for the government. This was a very significant couple of weeks for the government, as I've said, a monumental a very, very significant agreement at National Cabinet not only around health, around the GST arrangements to give a range of state governments certainty around their budgets, but also, as we've seen coverage over the last few days, a very significant sense of, of commitment by all governments to ensure the NDIS is sustainable for the long term, and there are foundational support for people living outside the NDIS, who have needs for disability support as well. We passed significant legislation to close loopholes that exist in our industrial relations system. This was a significant week for the government as we wound up the final sitting week of Parliament.
 
JOURNALIST: Can the ownership of the legislation be claimed in any way by the opposition, who would suggest that it sort of convinced you to toughen it up in terms of the detainees?
 
BUTLER: Legislation when it's presented to Parliament is put before for all parties, crossbench and obviously, the Opposition and we've always taken the view that when there are when there are reasonable and good ideas put to us by anyone in the Parliament, I will assess them on their merits and we've done that in that case as well. Thanks everyone, enjoy your Sunday.

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