Greg Hunt

Federal Member for Flinders | Minister for Health

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5AA interview with Leon Byner

Wednesday, 7 March 2018


Topics: Highest bulk billing on record; diagnostic imaging; Bupa; South Australia’s record hospital funding


Let’s talk to the Federal Health Minister, Greg Hunt. Greg thanks for coming on today. 


And good morning Leon.

Every time I open up the lines on health matters, callers will ring me and tell me that their co-payment to the doctor is $60, $50, $70, $100 and yet there are some statistics out which suggest that bulk-billing is at a very high rate in South Australia. Is that not the case?

Look, that’s correct. The bulk-billing rates are now at record levels, not just in South Australia but around the country. We know that in South Australia, particularly, it’s now 84.7 per cent for the last half year. So it’s basically 85 out of every 100 visits to the doctor mean that they’re bulk-billed or people don’t have to pay anything. 

Now that’s important. These rates continue to rise and they’re up almost 4 per cent in South Australia compared to what they were when Labor was last in government federally. So that’s a big step. 

At the same time, there are, for those that aren’t bulk-billed, out-of-pocket costs, so I’ve commissioned the Chief Medical Officer of Australia, Professor Brendan Murphy, to lead a group on out-of-pocket costs with the AMA, with the College of GPs, and with other leaders in the space. 

So bulk-billing rates continue to go up, which means fewer people have any out-of-pocket payments at all but equally, I want to make sure that we’re focusing on the actual out-of-pockets for those that aren’t bulk-billed.

Yeah, I’m interested in hearing from the public about this, because again, that is an average figure, isn’t it? The 84, 85 per cent.  



So it would be uneven, depending on where you are. I’m just trying to get a feel for this, because I get so many calls from people saying ‘hey, my out-of-pocket was this or that’. The other, look, there’s a couple of other breaking issues here. 

Australian radiologists have today hit out at the Government, the claim that Medicare has never been stronger following the release of Medicare data, and they’re saying that the number of patients who had to pay a gap for crucial X-rays and scans grew by more than 100,000.

Well, I think what you find is very interesting. You’ve got some of the wealthiest companies in Australia so, the diagnostic, the medical imaging sector, the radiology sector, has some huge, very, very wealthy companies who are spending an enormous amount of money. 

I should probably name them: I-MED, Primary, Sonic. Primary’s got a $2 billion share market value, Sonic has a $10 billion value. They’ve very, very, very, very, very profitable companies. What they want is even more from the Government. We just added, in the last Budget, $2 billion over 10 years to their Medicare payments. 

For them, it wasn’t enough. The Diagnostic Imaging Association is running a brilliantly funded, you know they are pouring enormous amounts of money from wealthy companies into asking for even more. I know the average radiologist earns about $240,000. I know they want more money and more money and more money and more money. 

So what the exceptionally wealthy are asking is that the lesser paid, lower-income people through either their taxes or through their payments, should be making the extremely wealthy even more wealthy. So I’ll call out the companies: I-Med, Primary, Sonic. Australian Diagnostics Imaging Association takes their coin and spends huge amounts on demanding more and more and more.

Well, I’ll give you a line that they’ve got in a release here. It says ‘a patient diagnosed with bowel cancer faces upfront costs of $2300 and will be $700 out-of-pocket for the CT nuclear medicine and MRI scans needed for the diagnostics’. So, you’re saying that’s because you guys are greedy? Is that what you’re saying?


Absolutely and I’m taking a very strong line on this. The radiology sector has some of not just the best paid specialists but some of the highest paid people in Australia. 

These companies worth $10 billion and $2 billion, the third one, I-MED, is not on the share market so we can only guess at its value but it’s been sold from one company to another, so they’re going to try to extract every dollar they can from the public. 

They just got an extra $2 billion over 10 years at the last Budget. We did two things, we reinvested, for the first time,  for the first time in 17 years,  we reinvested in four major areas, tomography, fluoroscopy, CT, and interventional areas. We also re-instated the bulk-billing incentive for radiology and diagnostic, which was due to be taken away. 

So, huge inflows into the sector, but the exceptionally wealthy are asking to become the excessively wealthy and frankly I think the CEOs should stand up and explain what are their packages, how much are they earning and how can they justify it?

I also want your comment on what Bupa have done because they’ve drawn the ire, this is one of the great private health insurers, great as in big market share. They’ve drawn the ire of the peak medical body, the AMA, after telling doctors insured patients that they would qualify for gap cover only if they’re treated in the Bupa-approved hospital or medical centre. What’s your observation on that?

So I’ve written immediately to the Private Health Insurance Ombudsman to ask the Ombudsman to investigate what Bupa’s done. I’ll also be writing to the chair of the board and the other board members, the chair is Nicola Roxon, the former Labor Health Minister. 

To ask and to have them explain exactly what and why they are doing this, but in particular I’ve gone to the industry watchdog, a very tough cop on the beat, in terms of the Private Health Insurance Ombudsman. I’ve got my concerns and I want it investigated and I also want Nicola Roxon to explain what and why they’ve done it. 

Is it legal?

So that’s what I’ve asked the Ombudsman to examine. I won’t pre-empt that, I don’t want to interfere with an investigation. But I triggered the investigation and I think that’s my job, my role, my duty to make sure that we do everything we can to protect patients against very, very, very, large insurers or patients against very, very greedy diagnostic imaging companies.

I’m talking with Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt. Greg, some more important information: you’ve offered South Australia over five years,  in terms of health, an extra $1.5 billion.

That’s correct.

Can you tell us whether any of that money’s got any conditions attached to it, or do you just hand it to the Government with an equal amount per year and say spend it as you see fit as long as it’s on health?

No it comes with a condition for reform. And those reforms are about ensuring that there’s better patient care in the hospital. At the moment we’re implementing reforms that are saying that where there are disastrous outcomes in a hospital, basically where an operation goes wrong. And I have to commend the quality of the surgeons and the doctors in the SA hospital system, I think that they are really, very, very, very good but in those cases hospitals won’t be paid.

South Australia wouldn’t lose out, it would be reallocated within the system to other hospitals so the total pool would be the same. But as an example we’re not paying for adverse outcomes, adverse events and I think most patients and most taxpayers would agree with that. So there are various reforms that are imbedded in the system. I suspect that once the election’s over whoever’s in the South Australian Government will want to sign up and not turn their back on $1.5 billion. 

It’s desperately needed. Interestingly the Commonwealth has increased its funding, under us, by 26 per cent to SA hospitals. South Australia under Jay Weatherill has increased its funding to its own hospitals by 6 per cent and in fact, reduced health expenditure in the last full financial year by $7.5 million. So I think that would surprise one or two people.

Look, we spoke to you a couple of days ago. And as you know, the State Government have said that they’re going to give kids around two and under, free meningococcal. The Government put a number on this as to what it would save parents, to $500. A caller rung in yesterday and said ‘Leon, it’s probably not even half that’ from her experience. Do you know what the real figure is?  

It will vary from pharmacy to pharmacy. I’ll come back, I don’t want to call out a number on the run but we’ll get back to you during the course of your program with what the recommended retail price is. 

I think the manufacturer is GSK, the product for MenB is called Bexsero and there’s a significant supply of it available. But I’ll check that price, we’ll get back to you with the recommended retail price so you’ve got a definitive figure.


One of the great problems we have in SA are enormous waiting lists for a whole range of procedures. Given that you’re increasing your health spending, you’re saying to South Australia, what are your observations on should this not in fact improve, if you’re spending more money?

Well, it should, that’s why we’re putting in an extra billion-and-a-half to help reduce the waiting list in the South Australian Government hospitals. But also the other thing that is having an impact and I think it’s very important we’re open and honest about this. 

The state system is harvesting what are called private patients, people with private health insurance, trying to pull them in to the state hospitals at the expense of the private hospitals. But that also boosts the waiting list time for public patients. 

So often lower income patients are deliberately being made, by the SA State Government to wait longer. Around the country the average waiting time is 42 days for public patients in public hospitals, it’s 20 days for private patients in public hospitals. 

That’s one of the reforms that we want to bring in that you just asked about, in terms of the new hospital agreement, to make sure that public and private patients within the Government hospital system are treated equally. I think that’s…

Are you going to disallow the state government health departments to harvest or get money from privately insured?

So, at the moment there’s not a legislative power to do that. What we are doing is tying these reforms to the funding agreement. So that’s built in. The funding agreement has been released publicly, so anybody who wants to look at it can do that. 

But we are immediately moving to reinstate what’s called the Medicare principles, which is the old view that whether you’re public or private you should be treated equally in a public hospital.

Alright, Minister thank you for joining us today. That’s the Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt. 


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