Greg Hunt

Federal Member for Flinders | Minister for Health


Interview with Fran Kelly - ABC Radio National Breakfast

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Topics: Codeine; Innovation and Science Australia blueprint; border protection        


Greg Hunt is the Federal Health Minister. Government is backing this codeine crackdown. Greg Hunt, thank you very much for joining us in the Breakfast studio. 

And good morning, Fran.

This ban has its critics, as you know. It was recommended by the Advisory Committee on Medicine Scheduling, after the number of codeine related deaths more than doubled in recent years. How many lives will be saved by these changes? Have you done that figuring?

Yes. The expectation and the advice of the TGA, which does come from the work of, as you say, the Advisory Committee on Medicine Scheduling which was a unanimous decision of all of the state and territory chief pharmacy and medical officers, is that up to 100 lives a year could be saved from the over-the-counter deaths. 

We know around the world in many places there is an opioid crisis. Codeine is part of that family. In other countries such as the United States and the UK, the decision was taken long ago to put these opioids on a prescription basis. 

Critically, there are many alternatives available over-the-counter, including increased availability of paracetamol-ibuprofen combinations and codeine will still be available for those that require it through prescriptions. But it’s a medical decision in line with the rest of the world, taken by the medical authorities for medical reasons. 

And yet people are furious. I mean I’ve never seen such angry texts to us then on this topic. We’ve got, let me just give you a couple. 

Mike this morning says deaths from drowning are around 300 a year. This dumb regulation will cost millions in extra GP visits and sick leave from headaches that would otherwise be controlled by small amounts of codeine. Some people can’t take aspirin, and paracetamol alone is ineffective. 

Well, in that situation, of course, there is the access through the GPs. But I think, let me put it the other way, it would be almost unthinkable, almost unthinkable, for any responsible government to ignore the unanimous advice of the medical authorities. 

And when you think of it, it’s the Royal Australian College of GPs, the College of Physicians, the Rural Doctors Association of Australia, the AMA, the Faculty of Pain Medicine and many, many other bodies, as well as the chief medical officers and the chief pharmacy officers of all states and territories. 

And not just on one occasion, but on three occasions that determination was made because of an increase in opioid deaths, a global crisis in many, many parts of the world. 

Don’t we have to separate the global crisis from the opioids like Endone and oxycodone from Nurofen Plus?

Well, I think that when you look around the world, The United States, the UK, Japan, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, many, many other countries, this decision was taken long ago. 

And in Australia again, we have elements which are for the medical authorities and elements which are for the government. 

This is absolutely part of the medical authority’s decision-making. And it’s not an overnight decision. 

It was a decision taken in August of 2015 with a long lead up and that’s why two things are in place, a variety of alternatives for over the counter, because we know that there are over 500,000 Australians with some form of codeine addiction based on the research which has been done by the authorities. 

And in addition to that, we have the availability of codeine, as with many, many other prescription medicines and drugs, through the GPs. 

There will be fallout from this and plenty of people have said, why do I have to pay $90 to go to the doctor just to get my Nurofen? But I just want to ask you this question on that…

Can I say this? That we have the highest bulk billing rates in Australia’s history of 85.9 per cent, which means the people pay nothing. 

Well just on that. In October, state health ministers wrote to you, calling for the policy to be reworked, because they were concerned that chronic pain sufferers could abandon their medication altogether because of the out-of-pocket costs associated with seeing their GP, because not every doctor bulk bills. So what’s going to be done to help those people, anything?

Well, in fact, we responded to that immediately and this was raised at the COAG health ministers’ meeting at the end of last year and there was a broad consensus for the continuation of the position. 

We responded with additional support in relation to the advice, education, and assistance for people in rural and remote areas. We’ve only just announced a further $20 million in conjunction with the Pharmacy Guild of Australia for a chronic pain assistance and advisory program. 

And again, it is the medical authorities unanimously done and unanimously put forward that have made this decision.

I understand that. 

And that’s the right thing to do to follow their advice and it’s, again, to overturn, a) which isn’t a capacity in which we have, but, b) to overturn it would have been an unthinkable position that all of this advice based on multiple studies over many years, three long advisory studies of the Therapeutic Goods Administration; a major publically available work…

Sure. Sure, sure, sure. I get that. You’ve had all this advice. 

And then the work of the coronial study, showing over 100 deaths a year, just from the over-the-counter situation in Australia. More people lose their lives to codeine related deaths than to heroin. 

What about the impact of this on the taxpayer, because presumably it will be more GP visits that’s going to have any impact on the cost of the Medicare system, what have you figured that at?

Look, the regulatory impact statement is online, and what that shows is a net economic benefit to the country in terms of reduced (inaudible). 

So, how much more on Medicare compared to then when you take off the impact on the health?

Well, the net economic benefit is positive when you take into account all of those elements. But it’s not being done for financial reasons, it’s being done to save lives because codeine is addictive and dangerous. 

And that’s why the medical authorities, in line with the other leading countries in the world, are putting this on a prescription basis. 

Okay it’s 17 minutes to 8, our guest is the Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt. Minister, we get a new innovation blueprint today from the Innovation and Science Australia. 

We heard Bill Ferris on AM. One of the missions that they’ve identified is for Australia to be the healthiest nation in the world. 

They say that will take greater investment in medical and scientific research, particularly in the field of genomics which they say could revolutionise our results in prevention and early diagnosis. 

Are you in board with this mission, will you be pushing for more resources to achieve it? Because it won’t happen without more resources.

Look, I do think this is a very important report, I welcome it, I’ve been deeply engaged over the last 18 months in consultation with Bill Ferris and Innovation and Science Australia. 

I think genomics offers the opportunity to diagnose individual conditions and to treat it. 
I saw a case of a beautiful little girl, Ellie, at Sydney Children’s Hospital who, I use her name because it was public at the time, who had a terrible chest and thoracic cancer, she was 12 months old, her battle was lost for all intents and purposes. 

Genomic testing diagnosed an almost unique problem, less than 30 people or so around the world, it allowed for access to a trial medicine, and that little girl was released from hospital not long after I visited, and she’s not out of the woods yet but she has a pathway back to life after the tumour had reduced by 90 per cent as a consequence of this genomic. 

So, will we be focussing on this area? Absolutely. Will we be responding to the call for a genomics mission? 

This is one of my great personal passions and priorities for the transformation not just of Australia’s medical research, but our health system and our treatment over the coming decade.

And just finally, Minister, you sit around the Cabinet table, it seems another day, another Cabinet leak. On the ABC at the moment, this latest one involves the Immigration Department and ASIO security checks for asylum seekers. Leaks like this it’s a sign of a divided government, isn’t it, if a Cabinet’s leaking?   

Well, I’m not sure of the origin and provenance of this, but I can say everybody in Australia knew that the Government was absolutely determined to stop the carnage at sea, to stop the people smugglers, to stop the tragedies …

By slowing down the processing of those who were rightly entitled and adjudged for protection?

Well, the details I don’t have, but there were 2000 …

Well, we have them now.

Two-thousand children in detention when we came in, there were over 1200 lives lost at sea …

So, you support this move?

Look, the details I don’t have. I can say that there was a catastrophic – catastrophic – human tragedy which was unspeakable, and it was unthinkable that that could continue. 

And the people who continue to apologise and airbrush this human tragedy and catastrophe should take a long hard look at themselves, because to airbrush this absolute human carnage is an utter disgrace. 

And we took steps that were strong, and clear, and public, and absolute. And that has saved more than 1000 lives that would otherwise have been lost at sea.

Okay. Greg Hunt, thank you very much for joining us.

Thanks very much.


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