DAN COX, HOST: If you ask people what do you want the Government to take care of? What do you want your taxes to be spent on? So often the one word answer, health comes back. The person holding so much responsibility, so many of our hopes, expectations is the Federal Health Minister Mark Butler. He is making his way to the Hunter, his first visit here in that role. Good morning.
MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE, MARK BUTLER: Good morning.
COX: Welcome to the Hunter, you're coming to confirm something that was outlined in the Budget this week. GP Access After Hours service, getting a funding boost. How much are we talking? What does it mean for the service?
BUTLER: We're talking a lot more than I actually promised during the last election campaign, because when we got into Government, we not only discovered there had been some cuts which had caused some of the clinics to close, particularly at the Calvary, or to wind back their hours - but we also discovered that there was absolutely no funding whatsoever in the Budget beyond the 1st of July next year. We've had to fix that for what I think is the best After Hours program in the country, which the people of Hunter have been able to access for many years. So we're allocating $17 million to give the security of that program for the full four years of the Budget. What that means is you'll see clinics be able to operate at the hours that people were used to in the past at Belmont, the John Hunter, at the Maitland Hospital at the Polyclinic in Toronto.
And we're also hopeful that the service will be able to reopen the clinic at the Calvary Matar as well. This is a terrific thing that the Labor team in the Hunter campaigned just so hard for and I'm delighted to be able to come and talk with them about that to the people of Newcastle and the Hunter this morning.
JENNY MARCHANT, HOST: You're hopeful they can reopen the clinic at Calvary Mater? Is that not set in stone with this $17 million?
BUTLER: Yeah, we understand that it is. It's going to take a few months to get everything up and running. We're talking to the operators now about how quickly that can happen. Obviously, the money was only available on Tuesday night. So those discussions are happening furiously. But we're committed to the full service. That's what the money provides for: the full service that people were confident in the past they could access being reopened as soon as it possibly can be.
COX: And Minister, what about extending it? Because this is sort of a restoration of a service that was well utilised before. We keep hearing how tough it is to see a GP, can you do more to boost the funding but also boost the services that are available in the Hunter region?
BUTLER: Our priority and what we committed to at the election was to restore the GP Access program to its previous level and we had to allocate a lot more money to do that than I thought we had, because we discovered that there was a cliff really on the 1st of July.
But more broadly around the After Hours program there is the Strengthening Medicare Taskforce, which I'm meeting with again next week. It's got the AMA, the College of GP's, nursing groups, patient groups, allied health groups and one of the very big focuses of that work is on the access that people have to their GP, and their nurses and allied health providers after hours. That's a very big, very big focus. And across the country we committed $750 million to implement the recommendations of that Taskforce, which will be delivered by the end of this year.
MARCHANT: After hours is one thing, and that news will be welcome to many around the Hunter. What about people in the Hunter region who just want to get in to see their GP for everyday health concerns, have to stump up $85 or so at first, end up $55 or so out of pocket after the rebate, and might wait weeks for the privilege to get in with their very stressed and rushed GP?
BUTLER: Look, I'm not pretending what we did on Tuesday night is going to clean up the entire mess that we see right now through the Medicare system. I mean, there were just nine years of cuts and neglect, particularly the six-year freeze on the Medicare rebate.
MARCHANT: What's your plan for future budgets then to sort out that problem?
BUTLER: It has meant that general practice is in the most parlous state it's been in the 40-year history of Medicare. And that's why strengthening Medicare was right at the centre of our election platform across the country. As I said, I don’t pretend to have all of the answers to that, which is why I'm sitting down right now, I chair the meetings directly I don't get bureaucrats to do it, with the AMA, with the College, with other health groups, to give us quick advice about how we can invest in Medicare in next year's budget to start to deal with some of those issues that people have been talking to me and the Labor team across the country about.
It's never been harder to see a doctor than it is right now. And when you do get in, gap fees have been skyrocketing because the Medicare rebate was frozen for so long by Peter Dutton when he was Health Minister.
COX: Mark Butler, the Federal Health Minister, joins you on ABC Newcastle Breakfast at 7:06. It's a state issue primarily, but federal money goes into public hospitals and there are also concerns we're hearing about at the medical hub of this region, the John Hunter Hospital. More than 90 per cent of surgeons and anaesthetists who responded in a recent survey for, facilitated by the doctors union say they have no confidence in the Hunter New England health leadership. How concerned are you by that? Is there anything you can do federally?
BUTLER: Hospitals across the country, particularly in the states that were most heavily impacted by COVID and that includes New South Wales and the Hunter Valley in particular, are exhausted. The extraordinary doctors and nurses and allied staff who work so hard to keep us safe through the first emergency years of the pandemic I know doing it extraordinarily tough.
I know state health ministers are aware of that as well: we met last night to discuss some of those concerns. Look, I'm not particularly aware of the details of what's happening at the John Hunter. I'll be there in a couple of hours. I'm just at the airport in Canberra now. I'd be more than willing to talk to people about that and see what the Commonwealth can do to help really support those people who've worked so hard over the last couple of years.
MARCHANT: During the election campaign you announced a bulk billed clinic for Cessnock. When can we expect to see that up and running?
BUTLER: We're working very hard. This is an Urgent Care Clinic, particularly for people to be able to access instead of going to the hospital if your kid breaks their arm falling off the skateboard, instead of going to an emergency department, which is really built for once-in-a-lifetime emergencies like heart attacks and serious car accidents and the like. People want to be able to access something that's closer to their community, easier to get into, and doesn't involve waiting six or even eight hours in an emergency department.
We're working very hard with state governments, including the New South Wales State Government, which is very keen on this program to design that, to make sure it's got the proper protocols with local hospitals, with ambulance services. We're committed to rolling them out next year and the progress on the negotiations with state governments has been really terrific.
COX: Mark Butler, safe flight. Enjoy your time in The Hunter today. Thank you for answering our questions.
BUTLER: Thanks for having me.