LUKE GRANT, HOST: The Federal Health Minister is Mark Butler, I'm delighted to say he's on the line, good morning, Minister.
MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE, MARK BUTLER: Good morning, Luke, how are you mate?
GRANT: I'm really good mate. It’s lovely to talk to you again. Have you got some good news for listeners?
BUTLER: This is a terrific day for the cystic fibrosis community because today, Cystic Fibrosis Australia, some families and I are announcing that this will be added to the PBS, and so for more than 500 kids as you say, from May 1, instead of families having to try to find $22,000 a month which obviously no family can do, $30 a month will be the maximum that people are paying for, really, just this life-saving treatment. It not only adds decades to life expectancy, as you said, so our youngest Australians living with this debilitating condition can look forward to a long, healthy, happy life. The day-to-day impact - if some of your listeners watched Married at First Sight, I think a whole lot of people were exposed to Lyndall, who is this terrific contestant on MAFS and was on Trikafta, and talked on MAFS about just the change in her life, her ability to get up every day to exercise, to participate in sport, just that daily activity. Just imagine for 6 and 7-year-olds being able to play at school, being able to participate in sport, not to have to have physiotherapy every single day, other therapy, taking dozens of tablets every single day. This is truly a game changer for these children and these families. I texted Ray this morning to thank him for his advocacy, I know Cystic Fibrosis Australia is enormously grateful for the advocacy of people who have a platform like Ray does.
GRANT: Yeah, good on you, that's fantastic. You know, I said, and it's a bit of a motherhood and apple pie thing to say, I guess, but you look at how we judge this place: we love it, we live here, we just know how lucky we are. But what a great measure of a society that says, you know, for a limited number of people there's this awful condition and there is a solution, it is out of the reach of, let's say everyone, but we're able to get enough of us working, paying tax, providing you with the resources to make that a real option for everyone suffering. That says so much good about this place, don't you think?
BUTLER: It does. It says so much about this country, but also says so much about this period that you and I and your listeners are lucky enough to be living in. I've been involved in health for a long time, and you know it's not too long ago some of these treatments were not even thought of. We live in this turbocharged period of discovery with medical scientists across the world discovering new treatments every year for conditions that not too long ago were thought to be untreatable, and this one, Trikafta, for the cystic fibrosis community, a game changer barely begins to describe what it means for patients and families who, as you say, really only had a very short period of life to look forward to compared to the rest of us, and every day and every week of that life was tough, you know, debilitating. They weren’t able to participate in all the sorts of activities that we take for granted - long, healthy, happy lives are what these children now have to look forward to, parents don't have to dread the idea about outliving their own children. Every single day these kids will be able to get up, go out, play actively, play footy, play tennis, cricket, whatever, and live a very strong, contributing life to this country.
GRANT: Yeah, well said. When, Minister, will it be actually available for those under 12? Is that pretty soon?
BUTLER: On May 1 it will be listed. We’ve moved very quickly, I want to give credit to the officials in my Department who have worked, and the company, Vertex, that has brought this life-saving drug to the cystic fibrosis community across the globe, and they worked very hard with us. As soon as we got the green light from the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee, which was in the second week of March, I think, I instructed my Department to sit down immediately with the company and to finalise those price negotiations - obviously it is important to make sure that we get the most effective deal possible for taxpayers - but get it onto the market quickly. So, May 1, people will be paying $30 dollars a script, hasten to say it would have been $42 a script before Christmas, but we've also brought down the price of scripts for general patients for the first time in the 75-year-history of the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.
GRANT: That's a more than fair point, I'm glad you made it. The PM is having a week off, I see Richard Marles will be acting PM, and Penny Wong will also be acting during that period. What have we done wrong? I don't see your name on the memo?
BUTLER: I'm told I've got a big job in health, and it's such an honour to work in this portfolio that changes the lives of Australians every single day -
GRANT: It does -
BUTLER: Because it gives them opportunity to live a full, contributing life in the greatest country on the planet, and today is a good example of that. You know, I haven't done really anything about this, I just get to put the ball over the try line as the Health Minister. This has been the hard work of so many researchers and clinicians, as I said, the company itself, but importantly the advocacy of the cystic fibrosis community. It's not a big group - about 3,500 Australians living with this condition, but jeez, they work hard together, with the terrific leadership of Cystic Fibrosis Australia, a great organisation, and partners like Ray Hadley and others across the country who are just doing their bit to advocate for better lives for these Australians.
GRANT: Yep. Great to talk to you, Minister. I'd love to ask you about the psychiatry, or the mental health appointments, because you give a great answer on this, maybe I will if you can give me 60 seconds. The number of appointments offered during COVID, I think, were 20 as part of a mental health plan and you've pared that back to 10, and when I heard that first, I thought “goodness me, the mental health issue will continue for many years, isn't it a bit hasty to be cutting it back?” But you were all over this and you've got the right answer, can you tell me what it is?
BUTLER: Those additional sessions were only added by the former government for two years, and they really related to the lockdown. So, the former government always intended them to return to the normal position of 10 sessions on December 31, that was their Budget position. But I also took the decision not to change that position in light of an evaluation done of this program, and what that evaluation said is that the additional 10 sessions for some people meant that a whole lot of other people - tens of thousands of Australians - couldn't get any sessions at all. They were locked out of the system, and that was really no surprise. Professor Ian Hickie, who I'm sure you know, a very, very prominent mental health expert here in Sydney, he'd warned that that would be the case when the government – the former government - made a decision a couple of years ago, he had warned that that those additional 10 sessions for some would mean that other people weren't getting any sessions, and this evaluation showed that this impacted the poorest communities in the cities like Sydney and in regional communities more than anyone else. So, I'm very concerned about this program, which if you can get access to it is very good, it just isn't providing equitable coverage across the country - our outer suburbs, our regional communities find it very hard to get access to high quality psychology therapy, which means - the evaluation showed - they're much more likely to simply be put on medication rather than getting this kind of high-quality therapy. I'm working with the sector to build a better system that does give access to additional therapy for people with complex, serious needs, but also provides a bit more equity across the community.
GRANT: Terrific. Glad we got that from you. All the best to you, Minister, good to talk.
BUTLER: Thanks. Happy Easter.
GRANT: You too, Mark, thanks a lot.