Topics: Walk for Autism; recent PBS listings; Labor’s poor record on PBS
Tonight, I wanted to highlight some important work that’s been done by the Minister for Health, Greg Hunt, locally and in his portfolio. Earlier today, I spoke with the Minister about the recent decisions to add an extra $1.4 billion for drugs on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, including medicines to treat spinal muscular atrophy and cancer. As well as his 500 kilometre charity walk around his electorate – Flinders, down on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula.
Welcome to the show Minister Greg Hunt, Minister for Health, terrific to have you on the show. Welcome.
It’s a pleasure.
Now look, you’ve been in your seat of Flinders now since 2001, that’s almost two decades. I don’t think I would know another MP though that personally knows basically every footpath and every suburb – you’ve walked your electorate not just once, but a number of times. You’re on this 500 kilometre, 19 day charity walk, you do it often. Tell me a little bit about it and why? What’s the charity you’re supporting this year?
So you’ve actually done very well to get me out of my walking gear, I’ve been sort of covered in grime and fumes and a mess from the walk. But we’re out on a 19 day walk; it’s 500 kilometres for autism. Raising funds for two local charities – Abacus and Light Up Autism.
And talking in schools, so visiting over 40 schools and over 50 small towns, and in some cases villages and on any day, I’ll be joined by people – parents today, we walked from Somers to Hastings via Crib Point and HMAS Cerverus and Bittern.
And it could be parents; it could be people with local environmental issues, people who are concerned about law and order. People who are concerned about their drains or people who are focussing on major national health issues and so they join and we walk with them.
Anybody can join: they might be pro-government, they might be anti-government, they might be completely apolitical. But it’s just an immense opportunity to be out in the electorate, talk with schools around the way and then above all else, focus on autism which effects over 160,000 Australians and with a very positive message and then very positive fundraising.
You and I obviously know each other from many years in politics, but one of the things I always admired Greg, was how much of your ear was to the ground locally.
The stuff that you don’t want to hear, as much as the good news that often comes a politician’s way. I mean, you’re often alerting us to things before they manifested as real issues and I guess that’s what Scott Morrison’s trying to do in Queensland at the moment.
Get out on a bus and yes, it can look like a gimmick from afar; those communities that get to see a Prime Minister, that may never have seen a prime minister or get a chance on your walk to chew your ear about an issue that they’re fired up about – this is often what they don’t get or say they don’t get from politicians nowadays.
A claim that you’re all stuck in Canberra, or hidden behind a desk; this is about real politics, isn’t it?
Absolutely and I’ve had people who don’t agree with the government in terms of the Grandmothers Against Detention.
They started off being very critical and then the announcement was made last week that the process that this government started under Tony Abbott of bringing kids out of detention, I think we’ve taken 2000 out of detention in Australia and more than 200 off Nauru, we’re they’re not in detention but they are on the island.
And the pledge that was made last week, that all of the kids would be off by Christmas, so some of the grandmothers who joined us at different points on the walk last week and they didn’t support what the government was doing, now I’ve had some that have joined – a woman who joined early this morning and said I was joining you originally to protest, but now I’m joining you today to thank.
So people come with all sorts of issues – the law and order issue has been raised again and again and again. People are concerned in Victoria, I think in every state.
But above all else, I think in Victoria about the gang violence and then in terms of my portfolio, mental health and the support for that and the importance of it and in particular, new medicines. It’s amazing how many people have focussed on new medicines, whether it’s for chronic spinal arthritis or lung cancer, for heart conditions or for eye conditions amongst many of the other medicines we’ve listed.
Okay. I want to get into the Pharmaceutical Benefit Scheme, this is the medicines you’re talking about in a moment. But let’s just get into your portfolio, you were not the Health Minister at the last election in 2016. But health was a huge issue and Labor, somewhere a big campaign, switched from talking about health generically, very much into Medicare territory.
Your government explained after the election result that there was a Medi-scare campaign coming hard at you. I would say watching the campaign unfold and commentating, that you seemed a bit slow-footed to respond to that only until the last few weeks did you get some sort of response back to Labor’s claims. Do you see health as a being a battleground at the upcoming election?
Well I actually hope so because we want to be on the front foot, not just about what we have done in terms of new medicines, the agreements with doctors, the agreements with pharmacists, the agreements with the medicines companies.
A unique moment in Australian history where all of those agreements have been struck together. But also the new investments under the Medical Research Future Fund and mental health. And if they want to make this an issue, I’d be very happy because the fascinating thing and nobody in the Labor Party can explain this – is they blew the budget when they were in Government as you well know.
In 2011 they stopped listing new medicines in that budget, where they said they would defer the listings of vital new medicines, whether it was for schizophrenia, whether it was for endometriosis or IVF or asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, because of fiscal circumstances.
To have a government say we give up, we’re not going to list these medicines that have been improved by the experts because of fiscal circumstances goes to everything about good economic management, the process that started when we came in to get the budget back to surplus, to be able to afford all of the essential services.
And they couldn’t do it then and they wouldn’t be able to manage the economy in the future. And most significantly, you cannot trust them with listing your medicines because when Bill Shorten was Assistant Treasurer, on his watch in 2011 they stopped listing those medicines which is an inconceivable moment in Australian medical history.
So I would love to fight them on this and what it shows is that you need a good economy and you need to manage the budget if you’re going to manage health.
Okay. So let’s keep the PBS, the Pharmaceutical Benefit Scheme nice and simple here. It is a gold standard scheme that countries around the world come and study the Australian model and try and implement it where they can in the United States.
If you can afford to go to a doctor, you often can’t afford the medicines that might come with your prescription, particularly if they’re medicines that you need to take week-in, week-out.
Now, you as Minister don’t make the decisions about what drugs go on the PBS, but you have to pay for them. Now, I remember very well the circumstances when Labor stopped paying for the drugs, even though the experts said we now approve these drugs to be freely made available to Australians.
When people pick up their script from the chemist, and they’ll often see a label that says the cost of the drug is $28 and then there’s another cost on there. Sometimes that can be thousands of dollars – that’s the real cost of the drug and then there’s the cost that the person might be paying themselves out of pocket with taxpayers picking up the difference. What’s at risk if we can’t list the drugs the experts say; what’s at risk Greg Hunt, if we have to pull back on our PBS spending?
Well, let me give a couple of real-world examples from recent months.
We worked incredibly hard to list a new medicine, Orkambi, for cystic fibrosis and I had a little girl, Heidi, come to me at Our Lady of Fatima Primary last week on the walk. She and her mum came, so they were very happy for me to talk about this publicly, provided a letter to say thank you for listing this medicine.
And for young children such as Heidi and others, it’s a drug that would have cost $370,000 – so completely beyond the reach of virtually every family in Australia other than a couple. And this will mean that kids and young people with cystic fibrosis will have access to this medicine.
We were able to actually negotiate a deal with immediate compassionate access, so instead of $370,000 they’ll pay $39.50 or $6.40 a script, depending on whether they’re concessional or not.
And if you stop listing new medicines, if you can’t afford them – whether it’s Orkambi, whether it was Keytruda for lung cancer, for non-small-cell lung cancer which would have cost $190,000 a year that we announced only a week and a half ago. These medicines are literally life-saving or life-changing.
And Labor doesn’t just have form, they have a history where in the last two years of their time when Bill Shorten was the assistant Treasurer, Wayne Swan the Treasurer – now the President of the Labor Party – they stopped listing these medicines, and they said it in the budget that it was for fiscal circumstances.
And if you want an example of why you do the hard work to make a budget work so as you can implement all of the decisions of the medical experts – whether it’s lung cancer, whether it’s what we’ve just done with Repatha for 6000 patients who will save $8000 a year for chronic familial high cholesterol, a drug that can literally save their lives as well – that’s why you do what you do in government. And it’s why you absolutely need to be able to manage the budget, because if you blow the budget you can see what happens when people can’t pay for medicines.
Couple of other quick things before we finish up. You know, you’re a smart guy, right. Fulbright scholar at Yale, you’ve worked for McKinsey, all of these various business roles that you did before you came into politics. Labor go out there constantly and say.
Go on. I’m a bit worried.
Labor go out there constantly and say you’re taking the knife to health funding, you’ve cut health budgets, you’re rolling back all of these costs. Of course, that’s not accurate. How is it that they can get away with these arguments that you’re cutting health funding dramatically?
Well, I don’t think they are now. And we’ve called them to account. They- I think I’ve had four questions from Labor. It might be four, might be five in two years now in the Parliament.
Maybe this might inspire them to ask another couple in the last couple of weeks. But they have basically given up prosecuting the case in the Parliament because they’re exposed, and I think it’s increasingly clear they tried this in Bennelong, for example, and it failed abysmally.
It turned out that Kristina Keneally’s claims weren’t just false but were demonstrated to have been false.
And so we make it very clear: Medicare funding, for example, is going 25, 26, 27, 29 billion dollars. And when you lay it out like that, the public says that’s not right and therefore they’re not credible on other things.
So, I think that- you know, they tried this for example with the reef when I was in environment before the last election. We saw them, we prepared and we dealt with them and they dropped the reef. I think that’s when they looked at Medi-scare.
Well, we’re ready not just for that but we’re ready to call them out on – if they want a health debate – on the utter shame of their stopping listing new medicines in the 2011 budget, as their own budget says, and their inability to manage the economy and therefore the budget and therefore health. So that’s the debate I’m not just ready for but we will be taking them on over what is a shameful legacy when it comes to health.
Well, Greg Hunt, you’re one of the few ministers in a Labor-area portfolio that doesn’t run and hide. So, more strength for your arm if you’re making those sorts of arguments: fiscal responsibility as well as doing the right thing. Good luck with the rest of your walk. You’re 190 kilometres in for a 500-k slog. Good luck, and thanks for your time tonight.
Thanks Peta. Cheers.