Minister for Health and Aged Care – press conference – 16 May 2023

Read the transcript of Minister Butler's press conference in Perth about Medicare Urgent Care Clinic, strengthening Medicare, cancer research funding and funding for fetal alcohol spectrum disorder programs.

The Hon Mark Butler MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care

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MEMBER FOR PERTH, PATRICK GORMAN: It’s terrific to be here at Rudloc Road Medical & Dental Centre in Morley, on the border of the Perth and Cowan electorates. I'm Patrick Gorman, the Member for Perth. It’s wonderful to be joined by Minister Mark Butler to say something very important about investing more in Medicare. I'm also joined by my wonderful WA colleagues Anne Aly, the Member for Cowan, and Lisa Baker, the Member for Maylands. What I think we all know is that Australians want us to deliver good quality, accessible medical services wherever we live. And what we know here is we've got successful centres, that we can do so much more and give access to so many more people. I’m now going to hand over quickly to Anne Aly, my electorate neighbour, to say a few more words, and then we'll hand it to the Minister.
 
MEMBER FOR COWAN, ANNE ALY: Thanks, Patrick. Good morning, everyone. And it is wonderful to have the Minister for Health Mark Butler here today. What's even more wonderful is that since being elected about a year ago, now the Albanese Labor Government has delivered on medical care for those who need it. And the announcement that Mark will make today, right here in Morley, will benefit thousands of people in both Perth and Cowan electorates, who need access to medical care, who need access to medications and for whom a strong Medicare public health system means the world. So I am proud to be a Member of the Labor Government and to hand over to the Minister for Health to talk about what we're doing to ensure that all Australians have access to the medicines and the medical care they need, when they need it.
 
MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE, MARK BUTLER: Well, thanks Anne and Patrick and Lisa for being here today. Anne and Patrick are playing such important roles in the leadership of the WA Labor team and in their roles as important members of the executive in the Albanese Government. Anne obviously as the Minister for Early Childhood Education and Minister for Youth. And Patrick as the Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister. So I’m delighted to be here with them, and also with Lisa representing the McGowan government.
 
We went to the last election with 2 key promises in the health portfolio. The first to strengthen Medicare, and the second to deliver cheaper medicines. And last week’s Budget delivered on both of those promises. In Medicare, we set out more than $6 billion in new initiatives to strengthen Medicare, as well as the largest across the board increase to the Medicare rebate since Paul Keating was Prime Minister more than 30 years ago. The centrepiece of that budget to strengthen Medicare was a $3.5 billion initiative to triple the bulk billing incentive for general practice. And that will be so important in Western Australia, where bulk billing has been under enormous pressure. The data I published yesterday, regularly published data on bulk billing, shows that GP visits bulk billing rates dropped by 10% in the past 12 months. So there is no state in the Federation that will benefit more than WA, from our initiative to triple the bulk billing incentive that we announced in last week's Budget. Also, hundreds of thousands of people in WA will benefit from our announcement to make medicines cheaper for more than 300 chronic disease medicines. More than 6 million patients across the country, hundreds of thousands here in WA, will see their medicines costs halved for medicines they're often on - not just for years, but sometimes for decades - rolling up to the GP every few months, rolling up to the pharmacy every month and on every occasion having to shell out money.
 
As part of our strengthening Medicare package as well, though, we announced at the last election that we would commission 50 Medicare Urgent Care Clinics across the country, including 7 here in Western Australia. Those clinics would be operating 7 days a week, extended hours from 8am to 10pm, and be fully bulk billed, so at no charge at all to patients, which will include walk-in patients. The objective was to be able to provide care in the community, when people needed it, for non-life-threatening emergencies. So emergencies that needed urgent care: your kid falling off the skateboard and busting their arm or a deep cut or a very urgent infection, which would otherwise be fronting up at hospital emergency departments. And I'm delighted to announce that this clinic at the Rudloc Road Medical & Dental Centre will be the first Medicare Urgent Care Clinic commissioned by the Albanese Government. It will be operating by the end of June, I'm assured, and will be the first of the 7 clinics that we will be commissioning over the course of 2023. Five of them will be in Perth as well as a clinic in Bunbury and Broome. And I'm delighted that we've been able to pursue a really good, thorough competitive process to see this clinic – which already has such an important footprint in Morley – take up the challenge of being an Urgent Care Clinic for the Commonwealth. And this will not only provide so much more opportunity for people to receive that care they need in the community, it will importantly take real pressure off emergency departments, in this case for the Royal Perth Hospital. We know that every year there are about 4 million presentations to emergency departments across Australia that are classified as non-urgent or semi-urgent. Certainly one of the objectives of the Urgent Care Clinic program for the Albanese Government is to take that pressure off hospitals, and to allow hospitals to do the work that they were built to do, which is really those life threatening, often once in a lifetime emergencies, that should be at a hospital emergency department. So congratulations to the really positive application that was made by this clinic. And I'm delighted to start to see the Urgent Care Clinic commitment that we made at the last election roll out through Western Australia. Happy to take questions.
 
JOURNALIST: How did you decide the locations, so 5 in Perth, one in Broome and one in Bunbury?
 
BUTLER: The process that we went through before the last election was to examine, particularly, hospital emergency department waiting times. And in particular, to have a look at Category 4 and Category 5 triage presentations, which is, as I said, those semi-urgent or non-urgent presentations to get a sense of how many cases were going through the front door hospital emergency departments, which otherwise could be cared for in the community, if we had a clinic like the one we’ve just commissioned here on Rudloc Road. There will be only 58 of those clinics across the country, which is an expansion of the 50 we committed to the election. That obviously doesn't provide complete national coverage. But this is a new model of care for Australia. This is pretty common in most countries to which we usually compare ourselves, across in New Zealand, for example, it's a very well established model of care somewhere in between the standard general practice on the one hand, and fully equipped hospitals on the other. In America, I'm told there are more Urgent Care Clinics than there are Starbucks coffee shops. But this is a new model for Australia. So we want to build out 58 and evaluate them very carefully to make sure we've got the model of care right, and then see whether we can expand them. We then went through, after the election, a very thorough process with state governments, including obviously the Western Australian Government, to test those locations and to make sure we have the operational guidance right for these centres. So they won't be open for just standard general practice presentations. Although obviously the rest of this centre will be, but the Urgent Care Clinic part of the centre will be only available for non-life-threatening emergencies. So those things that do genuinely require urgent care. All the other care that you will be seeking from a general practice, you will be encouraged to go back to your ordinary general practitioner.
 
JOURNALIST: WA hospitals have been in crisis the past year, we just had our worst year for record ambulance ramping. I mean, how far will this go? Do you think that those headlines can be avoided in this year coming?
 
BUTLER: Every hospital system, not just across Australia, but across the developed world is experiencing unprecedented pressure, you just have to look at the international studies. But after 3 years of a pandemic, even in parts of the world that weren't as badly hit by the pandemic as some others, there is an enormous pressure on healthcare systems, particularly in hospital systems. People didn't get the care that they probably should have been getting in the community during lockdowns and other interruptions to usual activity. So they're presenting at hospitals later than they should, with higher acuity of need. This is a very common phenomenon right across the globe and state governments, Commonwealth governments in Australia are working very hard to start getting us back to something like normal. But it's not going to be easy. New models of care like this will relieve pressure from the front door of hospitals. There's no question about that. That's why there's been such enthusiastic support by all state governments, Labor and Liberal alike, to the commitment we took it to last election.
 
JOURNALIST: And just got a few questions from colleagues over east. Sandy Roberts, footy legend, has opened up about his battle with multiple myeloma. 50 cases are diagnosed each week in Australia. Why is there no funding for research?
 
BUTLER: This is an incredibly sad piece of news that Australia received. He’s been such a reliable part of our lives for so many years across so many different sports. Footy, obviously, for people from AFL states like I am or here in WA, but so many other sports besides. And our thoughts really are extended to Sandy and his family going through this really difficult time in their lives. But also our thanks for the way in which Sandy has used his profile to draw attention to what is a relatively rare form of blood cancer, multiple myeloma. It does impact a lot of people, but it's about 1% of all cancers. And Sandy is a pretty typical patient of myeloma: a man in his 70s is a pretty typical diagnosis. Obviously, there are a range of research projects that are competitively tested by our research organisations: the NHMRC medicines. Medicines are presented to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee from time to time to treat cancers like myeloma. And I know that it is a constant frustration across the disease spectrum, about whether we're keeping pace with technology. And that's why we've got a range of reviews underway now about how we can improve some of those systems to very quickly be able to assess them, and approve them, hopefully, so that patients can get the benefit of this turbocharged period of discovery, that we're all living through.

JOURNALIST: And there's a gold standard treatment that's been approved in the US but has been rejected by the PBS. Is that a concern?
 
BTULER: Well, the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee has been an independent, arm's length body that assesses applications for approval and reimbursement under the PBS for many, many years. It's an incredibly important pillar of our health care system and I think underpins one of the world's best medicine systems. So I'm not going to second guess decisions that I understand the Advisory Committee talk about potential treatments for myeloma 2 or 3 years ago. I do encourage though, where there are potential for new treatments to be brought to deal with a disease like multiple myeloma, that the sponsors, the drug companies that have their treatments, bring them back forward before the PBAC.
 
JOURNALIST: Can you understand the frustration of patients and doctors?
 
BUTLER: Of course, I hear those frustrations all the time. They're there, they're deep felt, and they're completely understandable, as I say, across the disease spectrum and across the cancer spectrum. Over the coming weeks, I'll be releasing the latest Australian Cancer Plan, which has been the subject of huge engagement between Cancer Australia – representing all governments across Australia – and groups like Myeloma Australia and many others, besides, some of whom represent very big numbers of patients dealing with particular types of cancer. And some others are relatively small organisations who are representing relatively small groups like Myeloma Australia. And I know they struggled to get attention, they struggle to get the profile of some of the bigger cancer groups. Which is again, why it's such an enormous gesture that Sandy and his family have made to use his enormous profile and the deep respect and affection that Australians have for him to use this really difficult battle in his life, to draw attention to a relatively unknown area of cancer.
 
JOURNALIST: Minister, on Tuesday, last week, at the states only Juvenile Detention Centre there was a mass riot, one of the biggest in WA’s history. After that riot, the WA Premier said that complex medical conditions in detainees like FASD isn't an excuse for their behaviour. Do you support Mark McGowan's comments? And do you also accept the medical research to say that some of these detainees don't understand the full consequences of their behaviour?
 
BUTLER: I'm not across the details of that riot. I might see if one of my Western Australian colleagues want to add to the remarks. What I do know, though, is that it is important that the Commonwealth play a role in dealing with the consequences of FASD or Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. And there's substantial funding in last week's Budget to do that, funding that would otherwise have come to an end because of decisions that were taken in a budgetary context by the former government. This is something that a number of communities across Australia are dealing with. I don't have the detail to respond the specifics that you're talking about.
 
JOURNALIST: Is it responsible for a state Premier to be saying that FASD isn't an excuse for misbehaviour?
 
BUTLER: I haven't seen the comments. I don't know the case study. What I do know is that we take FASD very seriously in a Commonwealth level and we put in place a range of programs that were that were in last week's Budget to support communities that have significant numbers of, not just children and teenagers, but adults who are dealing with the consequences of Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder.
 
JOURNALIST: Patrick, do you want to make a comment?
 
GORMAN: Every Western Australian wants to see our prisons, including Banksia Hill, to be both a safe workplace and a safe place particularly for juveniles who are on remand. That is a pretty obvious statement. That's exactly what the Premier and the Western Australian Government is working towards over a number of weeks now. I think we've all seen those images. And we all think about everyone who's involved in those situations. It's not pleasant for anyone. As the Minister just outlined, in terms of what we're responsible for, we are doing what we can to make sure there's appropriate funding for important research and support projects. But one year on from the end of the Morison Government, I'll lived through year after year of the Liberal National Party blasting in and saying what the state government should do, when they weren't doing their own jobs. They weren't doing anything, they were racking up huge debts. They weren't addressing the serious challenges that we're addressing today, when it comes to things like Medicare, which had seen fewer and fewer people with access to health services they need. They did nothing as childcare fees went up 41% on their watch, we're addressing that. We will do our job. And I do, again, think Western Australians have seen the Premier and the state government take responsibility and take the actions that are necessary in those very challenging situations.
 
JOURNALIST: You mentioned that there were some shocking images out of that riot. What were your initial thoughts? And what message does that send the nation that pictures of officers pointing guns at detainees heads on top of rooves in WA?
 
GORMAN: I think about everyone in those situations, those who work in prisons are those who are called into support when things do get into a challenging situation. The individuals who are there on remand, I’m not going to stand here and judge the decisions. I’m not fully briefed on it. The Minister has outlined, he's not fully briefed, this is a matter for the state government.
 
ALY: I might just pick up your point there, because you mentioned research. And we know that all the research shows us that if we invest in the first 5 years of a child's life, through good quality early childhood education and care, that has social benefits for children later in life. It can carry them through adolescence, it can carry them through their adult working life. And that's why the Albanese Labor Government has invested in ensuring that early childhood education and care is affordable for more Australians. But more than that, we're doing work to ensure that children with complex issues, including FASD, that we have early intervention programs through them. We've got 50 Connected Beginning sites, which is a program that brings together early childhood education, health interventions, all of those things that wraparound a child. 50 sites by year 2025. We're well on our way to achieving that goal of having 50 sites by 2025. So if we're talking about FASD, if we're talking about issues for young people, we have to start from the very beginning. And I will assure you that Australians now have a Labor government that not only listens to the research about those first 5 years of development, but is investing in those first 5 years of development through the Early Years Strategy, through tasking the Productivity Commission to look at quality early childhood education and care, and through the ACCC inquiry into early childhood education and care. So if we want to talk about what benefits young people, let's start with those first 5 years and we're serious about that.
 
JOURNALIST: What did you make of the Premier’s comments around FASD?
 
ALY: I'm not going to comment on the Premier's comments. You asked a question about research into FASD, what I'm telling you is what the Commonwealth Government is doing for those first 5 years that will have a social dividend, that will have an impact on young people. Because we know that quality early childhood education and care in those first 5 years of a child's life is absolutely critical to their development and it has an impact on them as they grow older. Thank you.

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