Minister for Health and Aged Care - press conference - Parliament House - 26 September 2022

Read the transcript of Minister Butler's press conference on PBS medicines, new PBS listings, MPX (Monkeypox), GP workforce, aged care, COVID-19 response, vaccine rollout, access to abortion.

The Hon Mark Butler MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care

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MARK BUTLER, MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE: Thanks everyone for coming in this morning. The Albanese government was elected in health on a platform of strengthening Medicare and cutting the price of medicines. Over the course of this week, the House of Representatives will be debating our legislation to introduce the biggest cut to the cost of medicines for Australian households in the 75-year history of the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme—a cut for general patients of around 30 per cent and the maximum cost of their scripts from $42.50 down to just $30.


This is not just a great thing for the hip pockets of millions of Australian patients, it's also good for their health. The ABS has told us the Australian Bureau of Statistics that as many as 900,000 Australians every single year are choosing to go without medicines that their doctor has prescribed for their health, their doctor has said is important for the maintenance of good health. Pharmacist after pharmacist has told me of stories of their customers coming into their pharmacy and putting a number of scripts on their counter and asking for advice about which ones they can go without because they can't afford to fill all of the scripts that their doctor has said is important for their health.


I'm really looking forward to the debate in the House and then in the Senate on this important legislation but I urge all non-government members from the opposition and the crossbench to give positive consideration to this measure that will provide such important cost of living relief for Australian households but also a real shot in the arm for the health of those hundreds of thousands of Australian patients who are choosing to go without medicines that their doctor has said is important for their health. It's important that this legislation pass over the next period of time for it to take effect on the first of January 2023. Only a few months away which was the Labor Party's commitment during the election campaign. We're all prepared to be able to do that. We just need the Parliament to pass the legislation.


I'm also very pleased to announce that from this Saturday the first of October there will be a cut in price to more than 2000 brands of medicines on the PBS. These price cuts will deliver $130 million in additional price relief to Australian households through reduced co-contributions from those Australian households. Those brands of medicines include very, very commonly used medicines right across the Australian community.


In addition to the $130 million saved by households themselves these price cuts will also deliver substantial savings to the Commonwealth budget which will be able to be reinvested into new and amended listings on the Pharmaceutical Benefit Schemes. Those savings to the Australian budget run to about $930 million just from the price cuts that take effect over the course of the period from Saturday the first of October.


As one example about 500,000 Australians regularly use a medicine called Esomeprazole for stomach ulcers. The price of that medicine from Saturday the first of October will be about $7 cheaper per script for half a million Australians. About 60,000 Australians regularly use Quetiapine for bipolar disorders and other similar disorders for their mental health. Again, that script will be about $6 cheaper from Saturday the first of October.


I'm also very pleased to announce that effective on Saturday the first of October we will be making six new or amended listings on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. That brings to the total number of new and amendments to PBS listings to 64. That is 64 Since we were elected, 64 new or amended listings, giving access to Australian patients to wonderful life saving and life changing medicines.


Those six new or amended listings that take effect this weekend include an extension of the very common medicine Keytruda which will now be extended to head and neck cancers providing relief to about 500 patients every year who otherwise would have had to pay about $135,000 for each course of treatment. Because of the listing of that medicine, or the extension of the listing of that therapy for head and neck cancers, those patients will now pay $42.50 for every script. And if our legislation passes from the first of January will just pay $30 per script.


Avelumab will also be listed from Saturday for bladder cancer providing relief to about 400 patients every year who otherwise would be paying about $106,000 for every course of treatment. With this wonderful therapy now being listed on the PBS. Our government knows just how tough households are doing it with the cost of living right now. A cost living crisis that we haven't seen the likes of for a considerable period of time. That's why it is just so important that our government is getting on with the job of delivering on our promise to cut the cost of medicines for Australian patients. Happy to take questions.


JOURNALIST: Could I just ask for an update on the monkeypox situation. Victoria said there's been no new community transmission for weeks. Is that the case in the rest of Australia and are we still on track to get 100,000 doses of vaccine this year and when will people be eligible for their second dose?


BUTLER: It does appear that that new infection numbers are stabilising significantly in the area of monkeypox. The latest data I had is that there have been about 135 infections in total since monkeypox first appeared in Australia. As people would know, Monkeypox is not a virus known to Australia before.


There are about 65,000 new cases that the US Centres for Disease Control which is monitoring the spread of this virus in non-endemic countries, which is essentially countries outside of parts of Central Africa. About 65,000 cases through North America through South America, UK, Europe and elsewhere. And about 135 of those are here in Australia.


Only about three new cases have been reported over the last seven to 10 days and the reporting period before that there are about only five new cases. We can take some confidence that those numbers of new infections are stabilising substantially.


As you recall, we were one of the very few countries to be able to negotiate access to the third-generation vaccine for monkeypox. 22,000 doses of that vaccine have already been delivered. That's being now administered in a very productive way in particularly the two major states but elsewhere as well.


And we are due to receive an additional 78,000 doses very shortly. Once those timeframes are a little clearer I'll be able to provide further advice about second doses.


JOURNALIST: The former president of the AMA said multiple doctors said GPs are leaving the profession in droves because they exhausted as we enter the third year of the pandemic. Would you agree with this? Regardless, what does the government plan to do about that? They've also been pretty scathing of the Medicare rebate system which hasn't kept up with inflation, saying GPs are earning more per minute for shorter appointments so many are pushing patients through when they might be needing a longer consult. Do you share these concerns?


BUTLER: I do, and I talked about these concerns right through the election campaign and have done so since after taking government as well. After nine years of cuts and neglect to Medicare, particularly a six-year freeze on the Medicare rebate, I've said that general practice is in the most parlous state I think it's been in in the almost 40-year history of Medicare.


I've said on a number of occasions publicly that the fact that only about 15% of the young medical graduates are choosing a career in general practice is frankly terrifying. You don't have to go back to many years to find a time when about half of medical graduates were choosing a career in general practice. We have a very serious challenge ahead of us to rebuild general practice and to strengthen Medicare.


That's why those policies were right at the centre of our election policy at the last election. Just later this week I'll be having my third meeting with the Strengthening Medicare Taskforce. I chair that taskforce including the head of the AMA, the head of the College of General Practitioners, the rural college, patient groups, nursing groups and others. We’ll be reporting by the end of the year to government with recommendations about how best to use the $750 million commitment we made that will be rolled out from the Budget next year.


But I do want to make it very clear. I'm deeply concerned about the state of general practice. It is not going to be easy to turn around a statistic like only 15% of young medical graduates choosing general practice as their career. I am under no misapprehension as to the scale of that challenge. And I see that as the highest priority and health policy for this government.


JOURNALIST: So how do you plan to keep those GPs to keep them to stay in their jobs? I mean, GPs are leaving after they've already chosen that as their profession. What's the incentive to get them to stay?


BUTLER: This is the work of the Strengthening Medicare Taskforce, and I don't want I don't want to pre-empt the advice that will come from the head of the AMA the head of both colleges, the Royal College and the and the rural college as well as patient groups and nursing groups about the best way to rebuild general practice.


They're very clear that the priority for that group is to turnaround general practice after nine years of cuts and neglect. And look, there's no question that those pressures that pre-existed COVID, that flowed from the treatment of Medicare rebate by the former government, have been substantially aggravated by the additional pressures placed on GPs and their staff and practice nurses and allied health professionals by the pressures of the pandemic. There's no question about that.


But equally, we can't think that as the pandemic recedes, which we all hope it will over coming months and years, that things are going to return to normal in general practice. Those pressures are more significant than just the pressures of the pandemic.


JOURNALIST: When can parents expect a Pfizer booster to become available for children aged five to 11.


BUTLER: I'll have more to say about that when I get some final advice about it.


JOURNALIST: Just an aged care question, Minister. The Commonwealth submission to the Fair Work Commission case says that the government will support a wage increase but the extent of this is a decision yet to be made by the government. Can I just ask will the Albanese government fully fund any wage increase? Will this be factored into the October budget.


BUTLER: We've made very clear from the time of the election campaign that it’s a Commonwealth responsibility to fund aged care, particularly the care costs associated with aged care. Obviously, families make a contribution to the accommodation costs of aged care. Aged care residents pay about 85% of their pension for food and laundry and electricity and such. But it is a community responsibility to care for older people who require aged care. The flow onto care costs of the aged care wage campaign, the Prime Minister and a number of the rest of us have made clear is recognised as a Commonwealth responsibility. The case is still under consideration by the Fair Work Commission, there's no indication yet as to the timing of a decision that will be delivered by the Fair Work Commission, but we'll respond to that in due course.


JOURNALIST: Minister, your shadow counterpart this morning Anne Ruston raised concerns about the abolition of the Cashless Debit Card. Other Coalition members have talked about potential issues around drug and alcohol abuse in those communities once the card leaves. I know it’s not your portfolio but are you satisfied that the extra funding that Minister Rishworth has announced in drug alcohol services and other social supports will be adequate to address those problems in those communities?


BUTLER: Minister Rishworth is working very hard and she's consulting closely with communities, she's travelled extensively through impacted communities on the delivery of our commitment to abolish the cashless debit card, a card that was recognised by the Audit Office as ineffective as against the stated aims by the former government. Obviously, she is working very closely with a range of her ministerial colleagues and that includes my portfolio in Health to ensure that proper support services that are traditionally funded by the health portfolio are in place as they should be for those communities. But I think it's important that I allow Minister Rishworth to talk about that.


JOURNALIST: Minister, about a week ago the head of the WHO said the end of the COVID 19 pandemic was in sight. Is that mirroring the advice that the Albanese Government is seeing?


BUTLER: The head of WHO did say that, but as I recall, the head of the WHO also likened the fight against COVID to a marathon. And said that even in a marathon, when you see the end of the race in sight you don't stop running. And the important thing that he said is that it's not over yet, and we still have a substantial challenge on our hands. And that was the language I used last week. There's no question we're in the steep downward slope out of this third Omicron wave for 2022. Case numbers, which we published on Friday, case numbers are down about 90% against the peak in late July, hospitalisations are substantially down mortality in suchlike. But we do know that we're not through this pandemic yet. And I think it's important to reflect on all of the comments of the head of the WHO. We’re certainly in a better position than we were some months ago, but that there is still a challenge ahead of us. And we still don't know quite what the virus might throw at us over the future. We need to remain vigilant and that's what the government is doing.


JOURNALIST: On that note, we'll be hearing from the Chief Medical Officer after National Cabinet Friday because I think a lot of people would like to ask them about the advice that's been provided.


BUTLER: That's a matter for the Prime Minister and National Cabinet as to how that rolls out.


JOURNALIST: Given that there’s now an Omicron-specific vaccine that we be made available, will the government look at widening the eligibility criteria to people under 30 as well. A whole adult population program?


BUTLER: The challenge really, you're right, we are now in a position where the TGA is batch testing the first variant vaccine for Australia which is the Moderna vaccine. A bivalent vaccine which has elements of the original strain of the virus and also the BA1 subvariant of the Omicron variant in it.

That will be able to roll out over the coming couple of weeks we think. It's up to the TGA to complete its batch testing, obviously.


I do say to the Australian people take whatever booster is available to you now - they are all very effective, particularly in preventing severe disease. But the real challenge is, I think you're alluding to the fourth dose eligibility, the real challenge is for people to take their third dose. There are still well over 5 million Australians who have gone well over six months since receiving their second dose, who have not yet had their third dose. And so, I say to those Australians, get a booster. It's good for your immunity and it's particularly good for protection against severe disease. As to eligibilities for fourth dose that will be something that that ATAGI considers in due course.


JOURNALIST: A broader one on the COVID question. Last summer we saw quite a bit of chaos, obviously. There were new variants exploding in European winter, Australians here in summer were obviously mixing and going to social gatherings and that sort of thing. Could you take us through what planning is being done on a broader level so that we don't see your repeat of that? So obviously, hoping there's no further variant from Europe, but what planning is being done on your level, so we don’t see a repeat of what happened last summer?


BUTLER: We're very determined to make sure that we learn as much as we can from really the course of 2022. Both what happened in summer where instead of celebrating Christmas with their families, so many Australians spent hours in a queue to get a test and then spent days isolating to wait for the results of that test. All because frankly, the former government in particular, failed to take the advice of the AMA and many others and order enough rapid antigen tests that were needed over the course of that summer.


We’re very conscious of the need to avoid playing catch up. That's what the former government did over the course of summer. And frankly, that's what we were left with to do over the course of much of the third wave over the course of this winter. For example, eligibility for fourth doses was too restrictive. We had to push for the eligibility for that fourth dose to be broadened, particularly for older Australians. Only about 50% of aged care residents had a fourth dose when we came into government. We had to get that up and introduce new energy into the aged care vaccination program. It's now about 85%. And very importantly, we were playing catch up on the eligibility of antiviral medicines. Expanding that as well was something we had to do in the middle of the wave, rather than at the beginning of it.


I'm very committed to making sure that we don't have to play catch up in the event there is another wave. We're working very hard to, first of all, extend the measures that I announced last week that will run to the end of the year so that there's confidence, particularly in aged care, that there are those supports to deal with outbreaks in those vulnerable settings. To ensure that primary care support like GP respiratory clinics continue to operate through the rest of the year. But I'm sitting down with my department and making sure that we have all the measures in place that are ready to respond to another wave if and when that occurs.


JOURNALIST: Just a question about women's access to abortion which is something that your government is looking at. Will you be putting that on the agenda of Health Ministers’ meeting?


BUTLER: It's not on the agenda at the Health Ministers’ meeting right now. It is a commitment in the National Women's Health Strategy and a number of us, me, the Minister for Women Senator Gallagher, Ged Kearney, the Assistant Minister for Health who's taking particular responsibility for women's health in its broader sense for our portfolio, have said that we're committed to that element of the Women's Health Strategy to raise equity of access to reproductive health services. It's not on our agenda as health ministers quite now, we're focused right now on COVID and some of the measures going to potentially a national cabinet through the first secretaries’ group. But we're working internally on how we will progress that element of the National Women's Health Strategy.

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