RICHARD KING, HOST: Joining me now is Minister Butler who I believe is about to jump on a plane and come to Newcastle. Minister, good morning.
MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE, MARK BUTLER: Good morning, Richard.
KING: Firstly, the reason that you're coming to my neck of the woods is the funding announced to restore the GP Access After Hours Clinic, which the previous federal government refused to do. Why do you think it's important to restore this funding, Minister?
BUTLER: I heard such a consistent message from the people of the Hunter Valley when I was there on a number of occasions before the election. Particularly I heard it through our Hunter Labor team - Pat Conroy, Sharon Claydon, Dan Repacholi and Meryl Swanson who all campaigned very hard on this because this is one of the most important messages they heard from their community. Often people do need to see a doctor or nurse after hours, and we know that across the system it has never been harder to see a doctor than it is right now.
I'm delighted to be able to come to the Hunter and confirm that we're delivering on our election promise. We've actually had to find a lot more money than I had promised at the election because we discovered that there was not a single dollar allocated to the After Hours program across the country from July next year. So we've found in the health budget $17 million to allow this service to be restored to its full level. So you'll have services operating in Belmont, in Maitland, at the John Hunter in Toronto and reopen the service at the Calvary Mater as well so it's a terrific outcome that the people of Hunter campaigned really hard on.
KING: Do you think it's a model that should be rolled out across the country?
BUTLER: There are After Hours operations across the country, but this is the best one I have seen. It's why we've prioritised it for funding. A lot of the other services don't have funding beyond the first of July and I am going to have to look at dealing with that in the Budget next year. But my authority was to deliver on the promise that the Labor team in the Hunter Valley made to the people of that region and restore what I generally think is the best After Hours service in the country.
KING: Right, and one that certainly takes the pressure off emergency departments in public hospitals, Minister?
BUTLER: Absolutely and that's the key thing. It is not only about providing care for people in their own community, where and when they need it, it's also taking pressure off hard working emergency departments staff. Emergency departments, at the end of the day, are largely built for those once-in-a-lifetime emergencies like heart attacks and serious car accidents, and we want to make sure that people who do need care but don't necessarily need that level of care are given options. And that's what the Hunter Access After Hours program did so wonderfully for the people of the Hunter Valley.
KING: While we're talking about public hospitals can I ask you about your government's decision to quote “slash billions of dollars from public hospitals over the next 4 years.” It has enraged doctors who say they're stunned that your government would cut money on the back of rising inflation, a burned-out workforce and a huge backlog of elective surgeries. How can you justify cutting funding to public hospitals?
BUTLER: I'm surprised that the doctors' groups are taking that view. What we're doing is implementing the agreement that has been in place for a very long time now, which is that the Commonwealth pays the state government for every piece of activity they have in the hospital. So, every time someone comes to the emergency department, we pay a share of that. Every time someone has a procedure of surgery undertaken; we pay for that.
What happens is every state government makes a report on what activities happen in their hospital every few months to an independent administrator. On the basis of that report, we send them a cheque. So they send us the bill, we send them the cheque. It's no surprise that a lot of activity has been constrained over the last couple of years because of COVID. Now the simple fact of the matter is that Commonwealth taxpayers don't just send a blank cheque, they pay for activity and that is the agreement that the former Morrison Government signed with every single state government, including New South Wales.
I have absolutely no doubt that as COVID recedes that activity is going to rebound. There is a lot of deferred care in the system, a lot of elective surgery that's been deferred. I'm very confident that our contribution to public hospitals is going to rebound over the next couple of years because the New South Wales and other state governments will send us a report that says their activity has increased. And when they do that, we’ll pay for it. That’s our rock solid commitment: we will pay our share of every piece of activity that happens in hospitals, whether that's going down or going up.
KING: Good news for millions of Australians: medicines on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme slashed. When will that come into effect?
BUTLER: That comes into effect on the first of January. That's the biggest cuts to the price of medicines in the 75-year history of the PBS. Importantly for general patients, who don't have access to concession cards, and are paying, in some cases hundreds of dollars every month for their medicines. It's not only good for their hip pocket but what pharmacists tell me and what the Bureau of Statistics tell us is that almost a million people every year go without medicine that their doctor has prescribed as important for their health because they can't afford it. Pharmacists tell me of their customers coming into their pharmacy with a handful of scripts that they might have for their family and ask for advice about which ones they don't really need to fill because they can't afford to fill them all. That’s terrible for public health, terrible for economic productivity, terrible for the cost of living in households.
So, this is a terrific initiative, I think. It builds on a range of other things with already done in our short five months to cut the price of medicines for other members of the community, including pensioners and concession card holders.
KING: Really appreciate your time this morning, Minister, enjoy your time in Newcastle today.
BUTLER: Thank you.