DAVID LIPSON, ABC PM HOST: Questions are emerging over the veracity of some of the government data that underpins our health system. Official figures from the Federal Health Department state 88 per cent of all GP visits are bulk billed.
But medical groups claim the real figure is much lower. And now the Health Minister, Mark Butler, is seeking urgent clarification from his department. I spoke to Mr. Butler earlier and started by asking about the claims Scott Morrison had been secretly sworn in as Health Minister.
MARK BUTLER, MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE: Well, these are extraordinary revelations, just another example of cover up and a real lack of transparency that characterise the former Morrison government. The Prime Minister has made clear over the last couple of hours that he is receiving a full briefing from his department to have more to say about it in due course.
LIPSON: The Health Minister and Finance Minister positions were set in place right at the start of the pandemic when things were very uncertain. There may have been concerns about ministers getting rapidly ill, and there was also a need with those portfolios for a whole lot of integration, for example, with the procurement of PPE.
Does any of that give you pause to think there may have been a good reason, at least for the health and finance portfolios?
BUTLER: The difficulty here is that new details keep leaking out every few hours. We've learned today that the Finance Minister, who apparently was part of this decision, now says that he knew nothing about it.
I think the best thing is for the Prime Minister to receive a full briefing from his department to send any questions to other relevant authorities rather than deal with this sort of avalanche of details that are leaking out from different players of the former government.
LIPSON: Do you think it could have been unsafe for a person who was not the Health Minister to have carriage of that portfolio.
BUTLER: Let's wait and see exactly what happened. At the moment we're going we're going on different reports rather than getting a full picture of exactly what the former government did.
LIPSON: And just finally on this topic, the Prime Anthony Albanese has suggested perhaps the fact that there are two Ministers for Health is why we didn't order vaccines on time, because there were two Ministers. Your inquiry into vaccines isn't serving as a deeper inquiry into the Coalition's handling of vaccine procurement. In light of what we've discovered in the last couple of days, do you think the parameters of that inquiry should be broadened so we do have a much better understanding of what went wrong with that procurement and how to avoid it in the future?
BUTLER: I've deliberately tried to confine Jane Halton inquiry into the fitness for purpose of our existing procurement arrangements that will carry us through the rest of this year and into next year.
As the Prime Minister made clear, at some point there is going to have to be a deep inquiry into our performance through the pandemic. It would be extraordinary given the amount of money spent, the enormous dislocation and loss of life, that there not be a very, very broad inquiry into the Australian Government's performance.
LIPSON: Should that be sooner, rather than later, now, knowing what we know now.
BUTLER: We've said that the current challenge for the country is to get through this third Omicron wave. We want to make sure that the inquiry is done at a time when there is the ability to have some sober reflection on what went well and what didn't go so well through the pandemic. And we'll have more to say about that in due course.
LIPSON: Okay. To GP's, the official figures say 88 per cent of all GP attendances are bulk billed. Why do you think that data is skewed?
BUTLER: We've heard for some time now from doctors and from patient groups that some times that that masks the fact that people might have a number of different items billed for one single consultation, some of which are bulk billed, but one of which at least attracts a gap fee. We know from the Institute of Health and Welfare that about one in three patients pay gap fees. I've been hearing now for some time, from patients and doctors, that it is harder than ever to see a doctor and more expensive than it ever has been to see a doctor.
Even the official data now tell us that the average gap fee for a standard consult, for the first time in Medicare's history, is now more than the Medicare rebate itself. I want to understand exactly what is happening out here, because those official data, particularly that the former government would use to sugarcoat what I think is a real crisis in general practice, just doesn't reflect what patients and doctors are telling me.
LIPSON: As you say, it's a crisis. The real question is what to do about it. Do you accept or would you accept that moving forward Australia is going to have a system that is at least partially a user pays system?
BUTLER: For a very long time, people who can it afford pay a gap fee. It’s generally been a pretty modest gap fee. But certainly people on low and fixed incomes, low income families, families with children, pensioners have been able to feel very safe about going to a doctor and not having to be charged a gap fee. I want to see that continue as a centrepiece of the Medicare system. I've pulled together the doctors groups, patient groups and nursing groups, we're already meeting on a monthly basis as part of the Strengthening Medicare Taskforce to chart a path forward. We put in place significant investments at the last election. I want to make sure that they make a real difference.
LIPSON: So is it reasonable, then, in your mind, for a patient to pay $20, $30, $40 from their own bank account each time that they go to the doctor? Or do you want to see that gap payment shrunk.
BUTLER: As I've said it, it's never been harder, never more expensive than it is right now. All of the trends in general practice are going the wrong way. And if they're allowed to continue to run the way they did over the nine years of the former government, which was characterised by cuts and neglect to Medicare, then we're not going to be able to recognise the Medicare system that's been such an important part of our social fabric for almost four decades. I'm committed to making this the most important priority of our Health portfolio. That's why it was the centrepiece of our election platform and why we're working hard already to implement our recommendations.
LIPSON: The announcement today, an mRNA and a manufacturing facility in Melbourne, up to 100 million vaccine doses, we're told, will be produced every year by 2024. Will the Government of the day, the State or Federal, have any say on what's being produced or will it just be up to the company to just sort of push out what's most profitable and needed?
BUTLER: No, this will be a joint decision. And obviously, the focus right now is on COVID vaccines. But there will also be the ability to negotiate with the company for any other vaccines for other respiratory illnesses that that might be in demand over that period. This is this is an extraordinary addition to Australia's manufacturing capability, the first mRNA manufacturing facility in the southern hemisphere, the only one end to end anywhere in the world on a university campus. It’s not only going to give us security of supply into the future, it's also going to be an extraordinary hub for innovation and for jobs.
LIPSON: And do you give the former government any credit for that?
BUTLER: Well, I do. We pushed very hard to work harder to establish an onshore domestic demand and manufacturing capability. And I'm glad that they finally did that.
LIPSON: Mark Butler, thank you.
BUTLER: Thanks, David.