Radio interview with Minister Butler and Emma Pedler, ABC North and West SA - 4 October 2023

Read the transcript of Minister Butler's interview with Emma Pedler on the Regional Health Forum in Whyalla; bulk billing investments.

The Hon Mark Butler MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care

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EMMA PEDLER, HOST: Mark Butler is with us again. Federal Health Minister, good afternoon again. 




PEDLER: Yeah, well thanks. Now, you heard there, Dean Johnson speaking about the meeting. How did you feel both that meeting with Dean, but also then the open community forum that you held, how did it all go? 


BUTLER: Both went really, really, well. And I want to pay credit to the work that Dean and other mayors in the Northern Eyre Peninsula region are doing. Councils in these areas are having to go above and beyond the work that city councils have to do. I mean, they're having to get their head around the intricacies of health policy and use ratepayers' funds often to help build and operate medical centres. These are things that the local councils in the city regions simply don't have to do because the market's working fine in Adelaide, for example. I really want to pay credit to the work that they're all doing. Dean's thought about this deeply, but there were representatives from Streaky Bay through to Kimba and a couple of other areas as well. For me it was a really valuable insight into some of those towns of 1500 to 2000 people, and the real challenges they're having getting GPs to work in their region. 


These are terrific places to live and a whole lot of reasons why you'd want to go and build a career and a family there. There's pretty good money on offer through a whole lot of these arrangements. But still, towns in that region and frankly, regions like it right across the country - I'm experiencing this in every state in the Commonwealth - are having real trouble. Being able to sit down with them, they've thought about it so deeply, they've prepared papers for me to read, it was really useful. And as Dean said just then in his interview, he gave me a couple of ideas to go away and explore to see whether some of the programs we do have in place that are supposed to make things easier for rural communities accessing general practice, are able actually to hit the ground in the sort of towns that they represent. 


PEDLER: Yeah, we heard him speak there about the registrars and the fact that, you know, obviously they need to work alongside a fully trained GP who's got the time and isn't run off their feet already to give them some of that training and support along the way. So yeah, it's going to be interesting to see what happens as this is all taken back and worked into plans for the region. With the regional forum in Whyalla, what was the turnout like? 


BUTLER: I can't remember the exact number, but the room was pretty full at Westlands. It was a terrific forum. Again, as a Minister, it's such a valuable exercise to go there and really take any questions that people have, sometimes they're not about health - usually they are - so we've got a real insight into some of the challenges in Whyalla. I think pretty much everyone there was from Whyalla and they ranged from maternity services, challenges again that I'm experiencing right across the country in regional towns, including regional towns of pretty substantial size, Whyalla is 25,000 people, but we're experiencing it in places like Cairns with 100,000 people. There's a lot on people's mind and I think the ability to talk through that with them, get their insights. I think I said to you last time we talked to you, health systems right across the world are in really serious trouble right now after three or four years of the pandemic, they're deeply stressed, the workforce is exhausted, and in some areas where Covid hit really hard, they're quite traumatised. Stepping through that in a way that works for a place like Adelaide, but a place like Whyalla as well as a town like Kimba is the challenge that governments and communities have right now. But it was a really good opportunity to hear from them direct. 


PEDLER: We heard Dean Johnson earlier saying something about you're looking at improving bulk billing. How might you be doing that?


BUTLER: The centrepiece of our health Budget in May was to triple the bulk billing incentive. That's an investment of about $3.5 billion into lifting bulk billing rates among general practice and the increase in income for a general practitioner or a GP who bulk bills is actually higher the further you get out of the major cities. So, for a standard bulk billed consult in the sorts of areas we were talking about in Northern Eyre Peninsula, for example, the income to a doctor who bulk bills a standard consult goes up on the 1st of November by about 50%, so about half. It’s a huge increase, by far the biggest investment in bulk billing in the 40-year history of Medicare because we've seen for some years now bulk billing rates coming down. It's happening right across the country. It's happening in our big cities as well. But as Dean just said, it's been particularly pronounced in regional communities, which is why the biggest lift to GP incomes for bulk billing pensioners, for kids and for concession card holders is reserved for those most rural communities. 


PEDLER: Right. It will be interesting to see what happens and if that causes any more interest for GP positions in regional areas.  


BUTLER: I’m very confident it will change behaviour. When we released that policy in the Budget, the Royal Australian College of General Practice described it as a ‘game changer’ because they've been as worried as anyone about the pressure on bulk billing that we've seen after a decade of cuts to Medicare over the last period of time.


PEDLER: All right. We'll have to wait and see. The proof is in the pudding, as they say. Federal Health Minister, thank you.


BUTLER: Thanks, Emma. Good to talk to you.


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