Minister for Health and Aged Care's doorstop in Adelaide on 4 January 2024

Read Minister Butler's doorstop on Medicare Urgent Care Clinics and aged care.

The Hon Mark Butler MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care

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MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE, MARK BUTLER: Thanks for coming out today. I'm very pleased to be able to report today that the Labor Party’s commitment to stand up a network of Urgent Care Clinics through the course of 2023 has been delivered in full. We went to the election campaign in May 2022 promising a network of 50 Urgent Care Clinics. And as at the end of the calendar year 2023, last week, there were 58 Urgent Care Clinics operating under our program. These clinics are designed to deliver urgent care when and where they’re needed. Urgent care for non-life-threatening emergencies that don't need full hospital attention. And they are delivering that already, in full. We've seen the data from the first week of the full network operating, which is the week between Boxing Day and New Year’s Eve demonstrated that, on average, every day a thousand services were delivered in these clinics. Now, about a third of those services are being delivered to children under the age of 15. Kids who’ve fallen off their skateboards, getting injured while playing sport. Obviously, parents want to have those injuries looked at that urgently, but they don't necessarily need hospital attention. So about a third are being delivered to under 15 year olds, about a third are being delivered on the weekend. And very, very importantly, every single service is completely free of charge and is fully bulk billed. All you need to do is to take your Medicare card, you can leave your credit card at home, somewhere safe. These are completely free of charge. These Urgent Care Clinics were part of our program to strengthen Medicare and to deliver broad cost of living relief over the course of 2023. And we delivered on those promises. Alongside our program to strengthen Medicare, our Government delivered through 2023 a program of $23 billion in targeted cost of living relief. Relief that was very carefully designed not to add any further pressure to inflation, which is putting such pressure on Australian households. That package included electricity bill relief, cheaper childcare, more maternity and paternity leave, as I've said more free visits to the doctor, cheaper medicines and fee-free TAFE. Now of course there is more to do through the course of 2024. And last month, the Prime Minister along with his Premier and Chief Minister colleagues announced a further $1.2 billion invested in strengthening Medicare over the course of this year, 2024, much of that will be invested in expanding our Urgent Care Clinic network. And also, as the Prime Minister said yesterday, he has tasked the Treasury and Finance Departments with developing further proposals for the government's consideration in the lead-in to the May Budget, to deliver further cost of living relief to Australian households that, again, is carefully designed not to add any pressure to inflation.


Now before I take questions, can I also provide some further advice on the situation in Japan? This has obviously been a terrible week for our friends in Japan with the New Year's Day quake that has cast a very, very serious death toll in that country. And then the plane crash at Haneda Airport in Tokyo. I'm able to provide some further advice about the involvement of Australians in that crash. The initial advice from the airline itself and from consular officials was that there might have been up to 12 Australians on the Japanese airline plane that was involved in that crash. I can report today that they were actually only eight Australians the Japan Airlines plane involved in the crash and I’m pleased to report that all of those Australians are safe, are accounted for and are well.


JOURNALIST: Do you believe the government is actually doing enough to tackle the cost of living issues?


BUTLER: This was a very substantial package: targeted and carefully designed package of cost of living relief through the Budget last year, primarily. $23 billion, which all of the data including the ABS, shows provided very tangible cost of living relief to families, whether that was through very electricity bills that otherwise would have gone up very substantially. Childcare for those families caring for very young children. Or in cheaper medicines where about $20 million is being saved each and every month, just from the measure that we introduced on the 1st of January last year. In addition to that, there are other cheaper medicines measures that took effect last year. These were obviously designed carefully not to add further pressure to inflation. That's why the work of the Treasurer Jim Chalmers and Finance Minister has been so important over the past 12 months. Responsible, strong fiscal policy that has delivered the first surplus in a very long time. Not one surplus was delivered under the former Coalition government. As well as this targeted relief, as the Prime Minister said yesterday, there is obviously more for government to do. That is why he has tasked the Treasury and Finance Departments to develop those proposals for our consideration in the lead up to the May Budget.


JOURNALIST: Will the government be taking on major supermarkets in an effort to drive prices down?


BUTLER: As I said, the Prime Minister has tasked the Departments of Treasury and Finance to look at cost of living relief over the course of the period leading into the Budget. But as you're probably aware, there is hardly a Senate Inquiry into price setting in grocery and supermarket sector. That Inquiry, as I understand it, is due to report in May and we’ll obviously look at the outcomes of the report very carefully.


JOURNALIST: The Aged Care Taskforce is currently looking at ways to make the system more sustainable and one of those options that it favours is to make the user pay more, rather than imposing a broader levy. Will this be a fair approach?


Can I say first of all that I’m really proud of the work that Anika Wells, the Minister for Aged Care, has been doing in the first 18 months of our Government to deliver better care for older Australians in the aged care sector. Getting nurses back into nursing homes, 24/7 365 days a year, more carers caring for older Australians, a payrise for aged care workers – a very important support to improving the retention and recruitment of aged care staff who are so important to the sector. So I’m proud of the work that Minister Wells has been doing. But she also had the foresight to put in place a Taskforce bringing all people in the sector together: providers, unions, obviously the voice of older Australians and their families, to start to deal with a clear recommendation from the Royal Commission into Aged Care which is that we do need to look at ways in which aged care financing can be made more sustainable in the long term. Our population is getting older, the number of people in aged care is predicted to increase very significantly over the next couple of decades, particularly as the baby boomer generation reaches aged care age. And beyond that, any response from Government will be looking at these sustainability issues. That Taskforce has almost completed its work and we’ll obviously consider they recommendations they make, in due course. We’ll have more to say about that in the future.


JOURNALIST: Do you think having users pay more, rather than a broader levy, is a fair approach?


BUTLER: I’m not going to preempt our consideration of the Taskforce’s careful work. The Royal Commission made recommendations about sustainability of financing for aged care. The former government chose not to address that very serious challenge. We've taken up that challenge and we will be considering the report of the Taskforce very carefully. We’ll have more to say about it in due course.


JOURNALIST: Would it be reasonable to raise the cap of lifetime fees paid by aged care residents?


BUTLER: I’m going to get into particular proposals that the Taskforce may or may not recommend. This has been a really positive process led by Minister Wells, as well. She's been at the table, chairing these meetings, hearing directly from older Australians, their representatives, as well as providers and unions as well. I know this is the sort of debate Australia needs to make sure that we not only have a top quality care system for older Australians, which they deserve after working so hard and building this community that we’re so lucky to be living in, but also one that is sustainable on a fiscal basis, too.


JOURNALIST: The government's response to the Reproductive Health Access inquiry is now months overdue. Now you said that it would be key for the government to be making changes to the health policy. When will your response be released?


BUTLER: We're looking at that very careful. Ged Kearney, the Assistant Minister for Health, has a particular responsibility for women’s health and reproductive health. She has an Advisory Committee on women's health, that I'm sure is considering that, as well. So we're not going to rush into this. We don’t have a firm date to provide a response to it, but I can assure people who are interested in this area of health, that this is a priority for Government. It's not just a priority for the Assistant Minister Kearney, who is working very hard on this, it’s a priority for the whole government and we’ll have more to say on that in due course.


JOURNALIST: And Australia has joined 11 other countries in repeating its condemnation of Houthi attacks on ships in the Red Sea. How important is this step?


BUTLER: This really is another indication of measure of the concern and outrage that the global community has about some of these attacks that are happening around the Red Sea on civilian commercial shipping. And Australia as a responsible, proactive part of the global community obviously wants to be a part of that.


JOURNALIST: Asylum applications from people arriving by plane are back to pre-pandemic levels. What's the government doing to address this, to ensure confidence in the migration system?


BUTLER: I’ve seen some members of the Opposition out there seeking to make something of this. Now we won’t be taking lectures from Peter Dutton and his team about integrity and compliance in the system of protection claims. The Review that our government commissioned from Christine Nixon, the former Victorian Police Commissioner, really drew attention to the degree to which, under Peter Dutton, there was an explosion of non-genuine protection claims. And this all happened at a time when Peter Dutton had halved the resources going into integrity and compliance around this system. So we're going to have to clean up Peter Dutton’s mess. It’s not going to happen quickly, it's going to take a bit of time. But as recently as last October, Minister Giles and Minister Clare O’Neill put in place a $160 million package to beef up those integrity and compliance systems for protection claims, including on-shore protection claims. Cleaning up Peter Dutton’s mess in the Home Affairs portfolio is not going to be easy, it's not going to be quick, because of the state its in.


JOURNALIST: Peter Dutton claims that Labor's lost control of the borders, what is your response?


BUTLER: As I said, we've had about a million visa applications sitting in the tray when we came to Government, an explosion of protection claims made on shore, including as Christine Nixon said, a growing number of not genuine protection claims. There was a very serious mess left to us from a Home Affairs Minister who was great at talking tough but terrible at doing his job.


JOURNALIST: Going back to these Urgent Care Clinics, we've received reports that some people have presented at these clinics, but they've been turned away because it's been too busy or they haven't had all of the gear to treat them. People were going to these expecting that that would be ready. Is there an explanation for this?


BUTLER: I’m not aware of the reports contained in your question. We’re monitoring very closely the activity in these Urgent Care Clinics, we’re receiving incredibly positive feedback from the community, from the operators of these clinics and from state hospital systems that are already - to the extent they're reporting on this – are already showing a material impact on the number of semi-urgent or non-urgent presentations to their local emergency departments. We’re receiving anecdotal feedback, time and time again, from patients, including parents who have taken their kids to these clinics, about the terrific service they get there. Highly qualified doctors and nurses who often have a background in emergency medicine. So I'm not aware of the reports that you’re talking about, suffice it to say that this is a relatively new model of care for Australia, it's quite common overseas, it's very well developed over the ditch in New Zealand, something we looked at very closely. And as we build this network, potentially expand it in the future, of course my Department will be watching very closely to make sure that people are getting the care that they were promised in these Urgent Care Clinics.


JOURNALIST: Just going on to the COVID antiviral drugs that we were speaking about yesterday. The eligibility, as you'll be aware is restricted to people over 70, Indigenous Australians, people who are immunocompromised. But some doctors are calling for an expansion of this eligibility criteria is that going to happen?


BUTLER: Eligibility for all medicines, including the COVID antivirals, Paxlovid and Lagevrio, is determined based on advice by the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee. That is the only way in which government and the Minister for Health is able to list a medicine, including COVID antivirals, on the PBS, based on the advice of that committee of experts. Now their advice has changed over the last 18 months or so, progressively expanding eligibility, including on one occasion, at my request as the Minister for Health, seeking to ensure that all older Australians were able to get access to those antivirals. The PBAC – the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee – has indicated very clearly that they are continuing to monitor emerging evidence about the best clinical and cost effectiveness in using these antivirals and potential changes to eligibility. And I'll watch out for that advice very closely.


JOURNALIST: The people who are eligible, they can access this antiviral drug for up to $30. But those who are ineligible but want to try to purchase it themselves, it could be up to a grand. How are we going to make this more accessible to people who want to use it?


BUTLER: This is an issue for all medicines, whether it's COVID antivirals, cancer medicines, a whole range of other things. The PBS (inaudible) help patients access these important medicines, sometimes the life saving medicines, has always, for decades and decades, operated on the basis that medicines are listed based on eligibility criteria advice by the experts of the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee. Now, at least on one occasion, I have asked the advisory committee to consider expanding those eligibility criteria, particularly for older Australians, and they did that. The eligibility criteria are substantially more expansive than when we came to government. But at the end of the day, it's not just my policy decision, the law requires that I only list medicines based on the advice of the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee. They will continue to monitor evidence based, effective use of these medicines, and if some evidence merges the case they should change.


JOURNALIST: Would you agree that this is the next step? Because COVID numbers are spiking at the moment after New Year's Eve, and people have had the vaccines or want to manage the symptoms? So do you think this is the next step access to these antivirals?


BUTLER: That is a matter for the experts on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee. Yes, there has been over the last several weeks, another spike in COVID cases about the sixth Omicron wave. And the advice I have received is that there will almost certainly be further waves through the course of 2024. (INAUDIBLE.)


JOURNALIST: And just finally, from me, some of the states are saying there isn't enough supply of these antivirals. What is the government doing about this?


BUTLER: We and the former government, our predecessor, have obviously been making sure we’ve been monitoring the supply of vaccines and COVID antivirals very, very closely. I’m not aware of any report of a shortage of supply of those COVID antivirals. The last month for which we have full data, which is November, we don't yet have the December data, last month in November saw very substantial COVID antiviral prescriptions – about 70,000 over the course of November. I'm not aware of any concern in supply for any one of those scripts.


JOURNALIST: So there's going to be no change, there's going to be no change in eligibility criteria anytime soon.


BUTLER: No, I'm not saying that at all. The PBAC has indicated on each occasion they provided advice to government about the COVID antivirals, that as evidence emerges they would reconsider that advice. I can't predict when that will be. The PBAC will do a terrific job making sure that Australians have the quickest, most affordable access to medicines, right across the panoply of treatments, not just COVID. I know that they will be monitoring emerging evidence across the world about the best way to deploy COVID antivirals very, very closely. When that evidence indicates there should be a change, I’m sure their advice will change.


JOURNALIST: And just going back onto cost of living now we know the Prime Minister has tasked Treasury with looking at cost of living relief measures in the May Budget. What opportunities do you see in your portfolio for relief?


BUTLER: We're obviously also looking for ways in which we can strengthen Medicare and deliver cheaper medicines. We’ll be making sure that we’re a part of that work leading into the Budget. The 60 day prescriptions policy that was put in place last year means that millions of Australians can get access to their medicines for 60 days at the cost of a single script. The first hundred medicines for that program took effect last September. Another hundred very common medicines will take effect in March. Another hundred again in September. As I said, the biggest cut to the price of medicines in the history of the PBS that that we put in place last January, so 12 months ago, is delivering about $20 million dollars in savings each and every month for millions of Australians. We agree there's more to do. There's always more to do. As I said last month, the Prime Minister announced another $1.2 billion investment in strengthening Medicare and part of that investment will be directed at expanding the availability and access to Urgent Care Clinics. Thanks everyone.

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