Radio interview with Minister Butler and Patricia Karvelas, ABC RN - 28 September 2022

Read the transcript of the radio interview with Minister Butler and Patricia Karvelas on the Optus data breach and Medicare; Halton review; Omicron vaccines, National Cabinet; hospital funding; The Albanese Government's cheaper medicines legislation.

The Hon Mark Butler MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care

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PATRICIA KARVELAS, ABC RN BREAKFAST HOST: Mark Butler is the federal health minister. Welcome to the program.


KARVELAS: Medicare numbers are widely accepted as proof of ID for those who don't have a driver's licence or a passport, as many Australians don't. How valuable is that data to criminals, especially people engaged in identity theft?

BUTLER: Well, all of this data is obviously of potential value to criminals, and that's why consumers are rightly so concerned, almost 10 million of them, at the loss of that data from this huge breach of Optus’ data held.

And we only found out really yesterday as I'm advised, that included within that data that has been lost is Medicare details. As I'm advised, we were not notified that among passport details driver's licence details and others, Medicare details had also been the subject of this breach.

So we're very concerned, obviously, about the loss of this data and working very hard to deal with the consequences of that. But particularly concerned that we were not notified earlier and consumers were not notified earlier about the breach of Medicare data as well.

KARVELAS: Do we know how many people have had their Medicare details stolen?

BUTLER: Well, we don't have final numbers on that yet. Across the government, the federal police, obviously, but other signals director staff and other cyber security staff at a federal government level have been working non-stop for the last several days since we were first notified of this breach. As I say, obviously, it's deeply unfortunate that we were only notified that Medicare details were included within that data breach in the last 24 hours or so.

KARVELAS: And what's your analysis of what's happening at Optus? Obviously you're suggesting that's not good enough. Are they mishandling this crisis?

BUTLER: Well, look, this is a this is a matter broadly being handled by other ministers, not the Health Minister. Obviously, I'm very concerned at the loss of data.

Even though the Medicare system is handled by Services Australia, it obviously is central to the ability of people to access good quality health care in Australia. So I'm very much staying in touch with my ministerial colleagues.

But as to the broader response to this, this breach by Optus, I'll leave that to other ministers handling it.

KARVELAS: Okay. So will people need new Medicare numbers? Are you looking at that?

BUTLER: We've only been looking at that over the last 24 hours, as I say, because of the lateness of notification of this particular breach. We're obviously looking at it in relation to passports as well.

At the state level, state governments are looking at the consequences for driver's licences and so on. We'll have more to say about that as soon as we can.

But we're looking at that very closely right now. All the resources of government are going into protecting consumers in the face of this extraordinary breach of their personal data.

KARVELAS: The opposition is saying that the government should provide new passports to people. Are you looking at that? Is that likely to happen?

BUTLER: Well, as was said in the Parliament, we're working very hard to develop the best response to this breach of passport data, as well as all of the other data that we've talked about.

I know state governments are considering a response to the loss of driver's licence data, and as soon as we're able to respond to that, we will.

KARVELAS: It's been reported that Optus resisted calls to boost its cyber security. Should the company bear the costs associated with replacing passports, even Medicare numbers and cards?

BUTLER: As I said, you know, this has been handled across a number of departments. The Health Department is not one of them. Attorney-General’s, the Minister for Home Affairs are taking the lead on this.

And I really don't want to get into the details of that formal government response. I'll leave it to those ministers to outline that.

KARVELAS: Yesterday you released a review of Australia's COVID vaccine strategy. It found Australia should have adequate supply for 2023, but there's no contract to source Moderna shots in 2024. Are we as prepared as we need to be?

BUTLER: Well, actually, it found that there was no contract to source Moderna shots in 2023, not 2024. The Moderna contract only runs to the end of this year, and the recommendation from Jane Halton was that we look at the option of sourcing supplies of the Moderna vaccine for 2023.

First of all, to ensure that we've got sufficient dose numbers of MRNA vaccines. At the moment, we only have a contract negotiated by the former government for Pfizer doses, not Moderna doses next year. And also to ensure that there is just what we call a portfolio and redundancy approach so that we have a spread of vaccine options in the system.

This is something we argued very hard for back in 2020, and it's something that we think is very important. So that is that is a very important recommendation from Professor Halton’s report yesterday.

There are others as well, but that's obviously one that we'll need to look at quite urgently.

KARVELAS: Are you in talks with Moderna to extend that contract or negotiate a new one?

BUTLER: Well, I don't want to go into the details of contract negotiations. We're talking with all of the vaccine supply companies. We currently have agreements with Novavax, Pfizer and Moderna about arrangements over the course of summer and into 2023.

I met with the global head of Moderna only this week. I've met with Novavax global leadership in the last week and Pfizer's national leadership in the last couple of weeks as well.

Not only is there the question of the actual dose numbers we have supplied to us, but also particularly the MRNA companies, Pfizer and Moderna, are in the process of changing their vaccines to be focused in particular on Omicron subvariants.

So we are also keen to make sure that the contracts we do have with Moderna and Pfizer can be varied to ensure that Australians have access to the most up-to-date version of the vaccines, which is these what we call bivalent vaccines that not only target the original strain of the COVID virus, but also Omicron strains as well.

KARVELAS: Pfizer and Moderna are both making Omicron-specific vaccines. Does Australia have agreements with either company to purchase them and when would we see a rollout of that?

BUTLER: In relation to Moderna, we already have the Omicron version of the vaccine in country. It's in the process of being batch tested by the Therapeutic Goods Administration to make sure it's all in working order and good quality that if it's not finished already, will be finished in the next day or two.

And I expect that that will be available at points of administration on about the 10th of October. So we've moved very, very quickly to ensure that we have access to the most up to date version of the vaccine that Moderna produces.

And we're obviously in discussions with Pfizer as well. We have a contract inherited from the former government for substantial supply of Pfizer vaccine next year. We obviously want to make sure that that is the most up to date version of the vaccine.

And frankly, from these companies’ points of view, they're not going to be producing the original strain of the vaccine for very long. They're going to move across their global supply chain to these variant vaccines, either targeting the BA.1 subvariant, which is the version they're currently producing across most of the world.

And in time, over the next few months, they'll move to a version of the vaccine that targets the BA.4, BA.5 subvariant of the Omicron variant, which is the one that you see not only prevalent here in Australia but across the world right now.

KARVELAS: National Cabinet meets at the end of this week, and Premiers and Chief Ministers will tell the Prime Minister their hospitals are feeling the pinch from rising inflation. Will there be more help coming?

BUTLER: We have a Budget scheduled for less than four weeks’ time, I think it is now, on the 25th of October. We're working very hard, led by Jim Chalmers, the Treasurer, and Katy Gallagher, the Finance Minister, to make sure that's a Budget that delivers for the Australian people. In particular, it will deliver on all of the election commitments we put to the Australian people in May. We're very conscious of the enormous cost of living pressures being faced by households.

Today we'll be debating legislation I introduced into the Parliament to deliver the biggest cut to the cost of medicines in the 75-year history of pharmaceutical benefits, from debating legislation to make childcare cheaper.

KARVELAS: Mark Butler, I know that you're doing those things and they are absolutely on the record, but the states and the territories want the Commonwealth to abolish the 6.5% annual cap on the rise in hospital costs.

That limits the Commonwealth increase to about $2 billion a year. Will you go beyond what you've committed to in that promise because of inflation?

BUTLER: Well, I'm not going to pre-empt what might happen at National Cabinet in relation to any matter they might have on the agenda, including hospital funding. I'm not convinced on the advice that I have that the 6.5% cap is going to breach this year. That's not the advice that I've got.

KARVELAS: What advice have you got?

BUTLER: That we're not going to have breached the 6.5% cap this year. I mean, there are substantial constraints on hospital activity right now, mainly due to workforce. And the advice I have is not that we're going to breach the 6.5% cap, but we've also made sure that hospitals are in a good position over the course of the rest of the year to deal with the increase in COVID activity, particularly the support that the former government had negotiated with the states for COVID activity was due to expire this week.

We've extended it to the end of the year so that we go 50/50, share the costs of COVID related activity, whether that's the admission of COVID patients to hospitals, but all of the other types of activity, the PPE, the infection control and suchlike.

So, you know, that was that was a result of the first meeting the Prime Minister had with his Premier and Chief Minister colleagues, showing that we're committed to making sure that we share responsibility for the additional health care costs that this pandemic is imposing.

KARVELAS: Mark Butler, many thanks for joining us this morning.

BUTLER: Thanks, Patricia.

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