The Hon. Greg Hunt MP
Minister for Health
10 June 2020
INTERVIEW WITH LEON BYNER
Topics: State Hospital Funding, MBS Review, COVID-19 Vaccine Rollout, Mental Health
But let’s welcome Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt. Greg, good to talk to you and thanks for coming on today.
And good morning and it’s a pleasure.
Now, and this is something that won’t be of surprise to you, because it seems that this is the way the states work. But our State Health Minister tends to blame the Federal Government for our hospital crisis. You know, the overcrowding, the ramping. Do you think it’s your fault?
Look, I haven’t heard that from Stephen Wade. I find we work very cooperatively together.
It’s a partnership where we’re providing funds. We will have increased our funding from just over a billion dollars a year when we came in at the end of this Budget period, over $1.7 billion. So an approximate 70 per cent increase.
And I know they inherited some significant challenges. I think in the 2017-18 Budget, there was a 15 per cent decrease in funding from the then South Australian Government for South Australian hospitals from I think 2.2 down to $1.88 billion.
The Marshall Government and Stephen Wade have injected funds in. So they’ve done a great job. Equally, we’ll be putting in $8 billion over the current five-year period.
Now that sounds like a lot of money. And it is.
It is, it is.
But specifically, are you matching the State Government funding for our hospitals?
Well, we have a matching agreement where in terms of growth, there’s a 55-45 agreement. That’s the national hospital agreement across all of the different states and territories, and that’s exactly what we’re doing. So as South Australia’s funding grows, ours grows.
Alright. Is it a state or federal government responsibility to fix the overcrowding issues we have?
Look, the hospitals around the country are all managed by the states and there’s federal funding under the National Hospitals Reform Agreement or that’s the national hospitals agreement.
So our funding has gone up in this cycle around the country from $100 billion to $135 billion over the five-year period. And as I say, in South Australia, on an annual basis, from just over a billion dollars before we came in to $1.7 billion a year at the end of it.
So we’re putting in significant funds around the country. South Australia is putting in significant funds. They did have that 15 per cent drop in the Budget prior to the Steven Marshall Government coming in, and then they fixed that up.
And so, some residual challenges, but I think of anybody around the country, they’re doing, you know, an absolutely heroic job.
Greg, more than 900 health services and procedures eligible for rebates are going to change on the 1st of July. And I know that the changes to the MBS schedule make a number of procedures significantly cheaper for consumers, and that’s going to go down really well.
But doctors and health advocates are saying that you should hold off on implementing them. Have you had feedback like this?
So what we’ve actually got is the AMA has agreed and endorsed the changes yesterday. This was confirmed by the President of the AMA that it will start on the 1st of July. And the day before, the AMA and the Australian Government put out a joint release to this effect, agreeing on the MBS review process.
So this is Medicare services. And when you look at what we’re doing, we’re actually injecting $6 billion into Medicare in this Budget across the country and in particular, $711 billion in new procedures.
So new procedures such as blood pressure monitoring, plastic and reconstructive surgery items, facial and oral items, increased rebates for ankle fractures, for example. They’ll go from $582 to $741. Collarbone fractures will basically double from $116 to $235.
So, they’re the things that are actually happening. And the AMA put out a joint release with the Government (INADUBLE) it’s been carefully worked through over a number of years.
Your phone’s going a little bit muffled.
Every year, these items are updated. And that’s just what’s happening this year. And there was some discussion on the weekend, but by Tuesday, everything was agreed.
Can you rule out and this would be a pretty simple thing for you to do. It’s not a trick question. Can you rule out an increase to the Medicare levy?
There’s zero plans from our government to do that.
Okay, I just wanted to make that point. Alright? Now, I want to talk about the administration of coronavirus vaccine.
The GPs are going to administer the Pfizer COVID jab under plans to widen the choice. Is this something that you really think we need to do? And do you applaud it?
Well, that’s always been something that’s been planned as supply comes on board.
So at the moment, general practices are administering the AstraZeneca vaccine because that’s been produced in Australia and we’re getting up to a million doses a week.
Then, as the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines come in in the later part of the year, then we’ll be expanding our access through the general practices, and that has been our plan.
And what we’ve done is we have written to the participating GPs, there’s about 4,400 around the country, and also inviting another 800 to join to ask for what are called expressions of interest. Would you like to be delivering the Pfizer vaccine as that comes on?
We’re asking them to be prepared for October. If there’s earlier supplies, then we will bring on in July a small number commensurate with that supply. But that will allow us to ramp up.
So everything we get, we’re putting out through the states. And what we’ll see in July, is we will move, over the course of July, from 300,000 doses a week arriving in Australia to approximately 600,000 doses a week.
It will build up during July, and that will allow us to bring on GPs, not all at once, but as supply increases, the number of GPs will do that.
Because I note that GPs only can deliver AstraZeneca vials for patients older than 50. Is that going to change?
No, that’s the plan at the moment, that’s the medical advice that AstraZeneca is recommended for over 50s. And that can also be done through the state systems, we’re supplying the state. And, it’s a decision for them as to when and how, but the states have been tremendous partners.
I do want to say this, in South Australia, just looking at the figures from yesterday, we haven’t got today’s yet, there’s been over 375,000 South Australian who have stepped forward to be vaccinated. And as you can and as you’re eligible, please keep doing this because it ultimately protects you and it protects the rest of your family and your community.
Is it fair for me to say that what you’d really like as Federal Health Minister is as many people as possible to be immunised for COVID-19? Is that a reasonable assumption?
Yeah, couldn’t be a more accurate statement.
I would like to see as many people as possible be vaccinated. And as you are eligible, if you can come forward as early as possible, the more earlier, subject to supply, the better.
And so what we do is we bring the supplies into Australia in terms of Pfizer or we make sure that the supplies that are being produced for AstraZeneca in Melbourne by CSL are made available and they’re distributed immediately.
And as a result of that, what we’re doing is ensuring that GP’s and others are having that access at the earliest possible time. So this week, for example, there’s 1.1 million doses in transit or being distributed around the country. And that provides a very significant amount.
And as of yesterday, we’re at over 5.3 million vaccinations, and that had 140,000 in the previous 24 hours.
Can you just, for the record, there’s a lot of discussion about COVID passports. Does such a thing exist, and is it likely to, and how would they be used if we’re going to do something like this?
So the term, I think, has been perhaps misunderstood by some. What the Prime Minister was referring to was that your immunisation certificate, I had mine, that already exists in terms of you get your immunisation register on your Medicare app if you want it. And there’s a specific one for COVID.
Mine shows, for example, I printed it out recently, that I’ve been vaccinated twice. And what the Prime Minister was proposing is where there are lockdown, that there should be a time where people are able to travel if they have been fully vaccinated without restriction.
You’ve got to get the states to agree to that, though, don’t you?
Correct. And so that was the discussion. Rather than limiting people’s travel, it was the opposite. It’s what we might call a free pass across state borders if somebody has been fully vaccinated.
And what are you seeing around the world is that there’s significantly greater freedom in many jurisdictions in cases of lockdown for people who have been fully vaccinated. In America there are significantly more freedoms in different circumstances, it’s state-based for people that have been fully vaccinated.
And the idea is that once you’ve been fully vaccinated in Australia and there are sufficient number of people who’ve been vaccinated, that if a state does have to do a lockdown, as Victoria has done, that you would nevertheless be able to move if you’ve been fully vaccinated.
And that’s an important incentive for vaccination, but an important recognition of the relative safety for people who’ve been vaccinated.
Victoria has had four lockdowns and there’s no telling whether there are going to be more. Is this something that, and it’s unusual and it’s certainly putting a lot of people out and also not helping a lot of people who try and run a business.
How do you feel about four lockdowns in one state and possibly more coming?
Look, I’ll be very cautious about predicting the future. But what I will say is it has been very hard.
As a Victorian, I know so many people have struggled, particularly with mental health or small businesses or people with employment. And obviously, I am pleased that movement is being taken to end from midnight tonight.
The Victorian lockdown in its current stages moving to significantly reduced conditions, although we want to get back to as close to normal as quickly as possible.
And just quickly, mental health is now suffering badly from this. Have you had any discussions with your Treasury, Mr Frydenberg, about more resources for this?
So Josh has actually been incredibly focussed and generous, as has the PM. I mean, we talk about this a lot, I think. And so what we’ve done, for example, around the country is in this recent Budget, invest $2.3 billion in new mental health services for Australia.
And just this week, I’ve spoken with both the Premier in South Australia and Stephen Wade, the Health Minister, about our potential agreement with South Australia for additional mental health services, a partnership between SA and the Australian Government. And they’re right at the forefront of this. They’re really engaged personally.
And so during the course of COVID, we’ve invested over half a billion dollars specifically in COVID mental health support, particularly through Telehealth, but also through services such as Beyondblue, Kids Helpline, Lifeline, and the setting up of Head to Health clinics.
Greg Hunt, thanks for coming on this morning. And we’ll keep in regular touch with you, too.
That’s the Federal Health Minister, Greg Hunt.