Minister for Health and Aged Care - press conference - 27 October 2022

Read the transcript of Minister Butler's press conference on cheaper medicines; hospital funding; Medicare regulation; long COVID; bivalent vaccines.

The Hon Mark Butler MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care

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MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE, MARK BUTLER: In the May 2022 election we promised Australia and patients that we would cut the cost of medicines and we are pleased to say that this week we have delivered on that promise.

Today legislation has passed the Parliament to implement a Budget measure committing $787 million to bring the co-payment down for general patients from $42.50 to just $30 a script. The biggest cut to the price of medicines in the 75-year history of the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.

This is going to be great for millions of Australian patients’ hip pockets. We know at a time of huge cost of living pressures, that the price of medicines can be a really big impost to household budgets.

But we also know it's going to be good for their health. Because the Bureau of Statistics tells us that every year almost a million Australian patients go without a medicine that their doctor has said is important for their health, because they can't afford it.

Getting more of those medicines to the patients that the doctor has said is important for them is going to not only be good for their health, but good for their economic participation as well.

This measure today that's implemented in the Budget builds on a range of other things that we've done to cut the price of medicines in our short five months in government. Only a few months ago in July, the safety net threshold for millions of Australian pensioners, concession cardholders was cut by 25%. That means that no pensioner, no concession card holder over the course of the year will pay any more than $4.70 per week for all of their medicine needs - that huge price relief for pensioners and concession cardholders. We've also continued to list a range of new medicines on the PBS with new funding attached.

And finally, I'm pleased particularly to say also today, that legislation initiated by our government passed the Parliament to extend concessional medicines and a range of other benefits under the Seniors’ Health Card to more than 50,000 additional self-funded retirees.

We've been delivering steadily on the promises we made to Australian patients over the course of the May election.

JOURNALIST: Minister, the Budget’s forecasting the payments to states and territories for public hospitals is going to be decreased by $2.4 billion over the next few years, why are you cutting that money at a time where hospitals are already so overstretched?

MINISTER BUTLER: As state governments know, and other people familiar with hospital funding arrangements know, the Commonwealth pay states for their activity - pay states a share of the funding for every admission to hospital, every procedure, every piece of surgery that they undertake. And the amount that the Commonwealth pays every year to state governments is based on the advice that they give to us by the Hospital Funding Administrator about the level of activity that they're having in their hospital. COVID has obviously had an impact, for example, on the amount of elective surgery, particularly the two big states have been able to undertake.

We are doing what governments for years now have done and that is paying for the activity that takes place in the hospital, based on the advice from the state governments. So the Budget numbers in the papers around hospital funding reflect the advice that each of the state governments have given to the Hospital Funding Administrator and the Administrator has then given to the Commonwealth Government nothing more, nothing less, reflected in an agreement that those state governments signed with the former government.

Now, I'm very clear - as I think everyone else is in the health sector - that activity is going to rebound. That activity inevitably is going to start to surge over the coming little while as we get through the COVID pandemic. And for every additional piece of activity in the hospital, whether it's a piece of elective surgery or some other admission, the Commonwealth will fund its share of that, in accordance with the agreement the former government and all state government signed.

JOURNALIST: Doctors are arguing that there's not enough as it is. Why are you still cutting that money if they’re struggling?

MINISTER BUTLER: We’re not cutting money, we're implementing the Hospital Funding Agreement that the former government signed with all state governments. And that provides that state governments say to the Hospital Administrator, or report to the Hospital Administrator what activity they're undertaking in the hospitals. And we pay them for that activity. That's been the position for some years, it’s the position set out in the agreement the former government signed with state government. So as activity rebounds, as we move into a different phase of the pandemic, we will continue to meet our obligations under the Hospital Funding Agreement. And you will see funding start to return to more normal levels, I'm sure, in the future reports The Commonwealth makes, as well as future reports the states make. All we're doing though, is implementing the agreements that the former government and all state government signed a couple of years ago.

JOURNALIST: Just a couple of questions on Medicare. Concerns have been raised around the veto that the AMA has over your decision as Minister as to who leads the Medicare Regulator. Do you personally share those concerns? And do you secondly, have any plans to look at that law that requires you to have fair agreement? I think you have to make a new appointment in March next year.

MINISTER BUTLER: As I've said over the last several days, I have asked for a couple of pieces of work from my Department which are coming in the near future, as I understand it. The first is for some analysis of Dr Faux’s report on compliance and Professional Services Review arrangements, and also a general report about the state of our Professional Services Review system, given that we've been out of government now for nine years. It's timely for the department to provide me with that report, and we'll consider it when that’s provided.

JOURNALIST: So will that make your decision on whether or not you change that requirement to have the AMA sign off?

MINISTER BUTLER: I've said again publicly that I'm open to sensible suggestions about ways in which we can improve the Professional Services Review arrangements, those improvements are sometimes suggested by the health sector, the medical community itself, they've been suggested by Dr Faux, I know, on a number of submissions she's made very recently to parliamentary inquiries on legislation that is before the Parliament right now around client's arrangements. I want to deal with this in a sensible, measured way. I'll receive the report from the Department, I'll start to have some discussions with stakeholders who have an interest in this, which will be a very broad discussion, we'll see where we go from there.

JOURNALIST: It will soon be about six or seven months since Australia's most vulnerable people got their fourth COVID vaccine, the second COVID booster, there's a lot of talk about treating COVID like the flu, or part of dealing with the flu is regular annual immunisations. When can Australians expect to hear about the opportunities for another booster if they're vulnerable or for plans or regular boosters?

MINISTER BUTLER: Thank you for that question. There are a range of issues that we're focused on in the area of boosters, not just what might happen to those Australians who have taken up the opportunity for a fourth dose if they're eligible.

So all Australians who might have a level of immunocompromised, and also Australians particularly over 50, who've been recommended to get the dose and people over 30 who are able to get the dose - the fourth dose. That's something and I'll come back to that.

But I again want to reiterate my concern that there are still more than 5 million Australians who are eligible for a third dose and have been for well over six months who haven't taken up that opportunity. And I can take again the opportunity to urge them to do that.

The Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation – ATAGI - is constantly monitoring the situation in relation to COVID vaccines and they will be providing advice in due course, about any arrangement that should be in place to provide that same group - older Australians, people with a level of immunocompromise - with the opportunity to have a fifth dose. That advice is not before the Australian Government now, I don't expect it in the near future. But obviously, I do expect it at some time in the near future, may well be into calendar 2023 that we consider that advice, but that's really a matter for ATAGI to initiate.

JOURNALIST: Minister, the AMA said it was a bit disappointed in the Budget that it didn't tackle what they called the work of real reform around hospital funding, raising issues like ambulance ramping and rural and regional health and that sort of thing. By the time the next Budget comes around, it’ll be in May next year, you'll be in office for almost a year. Do you expect that your next Budget will start to tackle some of those issues the AMA has raised, will it look at that kind of real reform around hospital funding?

MINISTER BUTLER: Well, I'm a little surprised that the AMA was surprised that there were no surprises in the Budget we just delivered. We've been very clear this Budget was about delivering on our election promises.

And we have done that, unlike the former government, whose first Budget completely trashed all of the election promises they made in 2013.

Under Prime Minister Albanese, we are absolutely focused on delivering the promises we made. And we've done that right across the health portfolio. Now I've been very clear as well, including to several hundred health stakeholders this morning. I know there's much more to do this is we've just begun the task of dealing with the mess that we were left after nine years of cuts and neglect in the health system.

Next week again, I'll be meeting with the Strengthening Medicare Taskforce the taskforce that I chair, where the new Vice President of the AMA, she's a GP from Sydney making a terrific contribution to the debate within that taskforce. And as the President of the AMA knows, that taskforce is due to report by the end of the year and inform decisions the government will make about the investment of the $750 million Strengthening Medicare Fund that’s in the Contingency Reserve of the Budget we delivered on Tuesday night, and the allocation of that fund to particular program measures will be made in the 2023 Budget.

As for hospital funding, there is a five-year hospital funding agreement in place that we didn't sign but was put in place by the former government, signed by all state and territory government. There will need to be a midterm review. I'm discussing the timing of that review right now with state and territory ministers, I'm meeting with them tonight again, and will be having a further discussion about that. I'm very clear eyed about their views about the next iteration of hospital funding arrangements between the Commonwealth and states. I'm equally clear eyed about the views of the AMA and other health stakeholders. But currently, we have a five-year agreement that's about halfway through.

JOURNALIST: Within the funding of the COVID response. There was no funding set aside specifically for long COVID. Why was that when other countries like America, Great Britain have put aside side that funding and given the fact that we expect that it will be a big drain on our health system for years to come?

MINISTER BUTLER: I've said on a number of occasions that I'm very concerned, as is everyone really in the health sector about the challenge that long COVID is going to present to the community. I'm delighted the House of Reps Standing Committee on Health has already initiated an inquiry into long COVID. That's held a number of hearings, it’s taken submissions. I really look forward to its advice.

In the meantime, we have been funding research into long COVID. A range of research projects have been underway for some time. There are long COVID clinics that state governments have put in place that are particularly set up to support the needs of patients with long COVID. And in a country like Australia, we have a universal primary care system where people are able to talk to their doctor, or go visit their GP, access the support of other health professionals for long COVID-like symptoms. But I'm under no illusions about the scale of this challenge that's likely going to be with us for some time. And I really look forward to the deliberations of the House of Reps Standing Committee, and I'm sure we're going to have to respond to some of those recommendations for the future.

JOURNALIST: Just one more on Medicare, there have been calls for an independent inquiry beyond what you commissioned from your Department. Is that something you're willing to consider?

MINISTER BUTLER: As I’ve said in response to your first question, I'm seeking advice about this. I'll talk to stakeholders in due course after I've received that advice, and I want to take a sensible, measured approach to this. And we'll see where we go.

JOURNALIST: Just one question on vaccines, so the COVID bivalent vaccine have started to be rolled out. How many are there available?

MINISTER BUTLER: This is obviously a new product on the market from Moderna. Pfizer is also in the process of seeking approval for its bivalent vaccine, they’ve essentially both had two bivalent vaccines. The bivalent vaccine targets the original strain of the virus. The first version of the products also target the BA.1 subvariant of omicron, later versions target the BA.4, BA.5 strains.

We want in due course to be able to have access to the BA.4, BA.5, the most modern version of the vaccine. We're having discussions with Moderna and Pfizer about that. We want to make sure that Australians have access to the most up to date, most modern version of those vaccines, and I'm very confident that arrangements will strike with those two companies to ensure that.

JOURNALIST: Last summer obviously dealt a huge COVID wave. Have you received modelling about what would happen this summer, given the fact that we've now removed those isolation requirements.

MINISTER BUTLER: Firstly, the tapering down of the isolation requirements from seven to five days, and then the removal of the additional five-day requirement have both coincided with a continuing steep reduction in the number of COVID cases. The last week, for example, saw a 14% reduction in the number of reported COVID cases. That was the first week in which there was no mandatory isolation period across the country. So I think we've been able to continue to see the steep decline in that third omicron wave that we experienced through the course of winter 2022.

I think we will see over the course of time, different modelling presented by state governments in particular, I've noticed advice from some Chief Health Officers, that although there is some modelling that expects the possibility of another wave over the course of summer, some of them now expect that to be smaller and shorter than might have been the case several months ago, but obviously we're continuing to monitor that.  

Thanks, everyone.  

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