TOPIC: Medicare 40th anniversary; 360,000 more bulk billed visits to the GP; bulk billing rates climb; new concussion in sport guidelines.
MATT SHIRVINGTON, HOST: 40 years ago today the groundbreaking Medicare system was introduced giving all Australians access to basic health care. And new figures released overnight show that four decades later, bulk billing is finally back on the rise. Aussies made an extra 360,000 free visits to their doctor in November and December, saving an estimated $15 million. Joining me now is Health Minister Mark Butler. Good morning to you. Well done. Bulk billing might be up and no doubt you'll be taking some credit for that. But what we hear every day, in the Sunrise inbox, is that families are still struggling to get into their local doctor. We have a doctor shortage still, don't we?
MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE, MARK BUTLER: We're really struggling with getting enough medical graduates choosing general practice as a career. This is a worldwide phenomenon. A small medical graduates go into other specialities. So there is a long term challenge here. But when we came to government bulk billing to see your doctor, your GP was in freefall, frankly. And that's why it was such a centrepiece of our Budget last year to triple the incentive - the money that a doctor gets if they bulk bill - particularly pensioners, concession card holders and children under the age of 16. And so our first job was to stop that slide, the slide in bulk billing. And I think we've done that over the course of last year. But pleasingly, as you say, over the last two months, as the money started to hit the general practices, we've seen an increase in free visits. An extra 360,000 over just two months. But really pleasingly, in some of those markets that had real problems with bulk billing, Tasmania is up almost 6%, which I'm delighted about. Regional Victoria up 5%, the central coast of New South Wales that had really low bulk billing rates - that's up almost 5%. So there is a lot more for us to do, Matt, but this is a really good start to build on.
SHIRVINGTON: So today is all about celebrating its past Medicare. But what about the future? Another question that we often get asked here in sunrise is will we see it extended to dental care?
BUTLER: That's obviously a piece of work that governments need to address. We extended it to dental care for kids in low-income families when we were last in government. In the 70s and 80s, dental care was not included in Medibank under Whitlam and then Medicare under Hawke. This is something people continue to talk about. But right now I'm focused on strengthening the Medicare that we have. It's the 40th birthday today. This was a hard-fought programme, it was opposed very strongly by doctors groups at the time and by the Liberal Party. We've managed to secure it. I think it's probably now the most important social programme that we have in Australia. It’s certainly one of the most popular. But like everything that hits middle age, certainly that's been my experience, you know, you start to feel the pressure. We need to strengthen it for the future and make sure it reflects the patient needs of today, because they are quite different to the patient needs in the 1980s.
SHIRVINGTON: Absolutely. While I've got you just finally pardon the pun, but this is a game changer: a major shake up to recreational sport in Australia this morning, with the country's peak sporting body proposing an overhaul to concussion protocols. The Australian Institute of Sport has released new guidelines, which include a minimum 21 day rest period before players are allowed to return to contact sport after suffering a head knock. Do you support these changes?
BUTLER: I really welcome this advice from the Institute of Sport. I understand 30 different national sporting bodies have decided to pick up that advice. It follows a really landmark Senate report last year to try to shine the light on the issue of concussion, not just in elite sport that we've been reading about for some years, but in community sport, particularly junior sports, too, Matt. I used to ride the boundaries of my son's football, and even by the age of 13 and 14, they're getting pretty big. There are some big units out there and they hit pretty hard. And when one of those kids went down with a bit of concussion, it was really scary. So having some good advice from the AIS, having concussion officers at those sporting clubs that make sure that the kid or the adult playing community sport is followed up with their doctor, and as well as the 21 day time out period.