June 12, 2024

MEMBER FOR NEWCASTLE, SHARON CLAYDON: Welcome, everybody. Thank you for joining us today. It's such a delight to be here with my Hunter Labor colleagues to welcome the return visit of Minister Mark Butler. We of course were here when we were announcing the delivery of our commitment to save GP Access After Hours services in Newcastle, a phenomenal local service that - seriously there's not a single family in our region that don't know and love that service. We've managed to reinstate full operational hours at all five clinics now and reopen the clinic at the Calvary Mater Hospital that was closed under Scott Morrison's watch. So that's been great news. Today's announcement, which I'll hand to the Minister shortly, is really building on those commitments to strengthen Medicare into our region. So it's a great story for Newcastle and our region. And on that note, I'd like to hand across to the Minister to take us through today's announcement.
MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE, MARK BUTLER: Thanks, Sharon. It is terrific to be here with Dan Repacholi, Pat Conroy and Sharon Claydon as three members of the Labor team, to talk about another really significant investment in our strengthening Medicare program. We're here at the John Hunter and we know that the emergency department here in the hospital is under very real pressure. And that's no exception, really. Because every hospital in every state and territory right now is experiencing the same sorts of pressures. And frankly, we're seeing it right across the world.
Our population is getting older, there's more chronic disease, more mental illness in the community, but we're also dealing with the legacy of the COVID pandemic, where people weren't able to get the care that they needed during those lockdowns and other restrictions. So, doctors, nurses, health administrators tell us that people are presenting to emergency departments right around the country in greater numbers. But they're also presenting with higher levels of need or higher acuity, because of the deferred care, the care they weren't getting during the pandemic. And on top of all of those pressures that our hospitals are seeing, they’re also dealing with a decade of cuts and neglect to Medicare that we saw under the former government. That particularly impacted general practice, which means that people who aren't able to see a GP, their usual family doctor for a condition, too often feel that their only alternative is to present at an emergency department around the country like the ED here at John Hunter. That's why we've been so focused on our strengthening Medicare agenda, tripling the bulk billing incentive last year, the biggest ever investment in bulk billing, which is a real challenge for this particular region of New South Wales. Delivering cheaper medicines, which we know is good for people's hip pocket, but also good for their health, because they're more likely to take the medicines that their doctor has said is important for their health. But also, importantly, rolling out a network of Medicare Urgent Care Clinics. These are clinics that are open seven days a week, they're open extended hours. Importantly, they're fully bulk billed. And they're giving an option for people who need to be seen urgently for an injury or an urgent illness, without having to go to the hospital emergency department. We've rolled out 58 of those clinics last year, which was the election promise we made. Already that seen more than 440,000 patients, including in Dan's electorate at the Cessnock Urgent Care Clinic. Interestingly, one in three of those patients are under 15. They're kids who are falling off a skateboard or getting sick and need to be seen very quickly. You know, if you can't get into your GP, you’re a parent with a sick or an injured child, you will bring them to the hospital emergency department. This option, instead, means they're not waiting very long, they're being seen by highly qualified staff - doctors and nurses - and they're able to be fully bulk billed. In the Budget last month, we announced 29 additional Medicare Urgent Care Clinics. I’m delighted to say that one of those 29 additional Urgent Care Clinics will be here in the Newcastle-Lake Macquarie region, designed particularly to take pressure off the John Hunter emergency department.
We know from the clinics that are already operating, that more than half of the people that present to the clinics, say that if the clinic weren't open, they would go to the local hospital and potentially wait hours and hours to be seen and put more pressure on hospital emergency departments, which are already dealing with unprecedented pressure. In some clinics, that rate is as high as 80%. As high as 80% of the patients going through these clinics are saying otherwise, they would feel they had to go to the hospital emergency department. So I'm delighted we've been able to deliver this additional investment. In the Budget, also, we announced further funds for the regional Urgent Care Clinics, which will include the Cessnock Urgent Care Clinic, some more resources to allow them to care for even more people in Dan's part of the Hunter Valley, again, taking pressure off local hospitals. But giving people a care option, close to their community when and where they need it, whether it's for them, or whether it's for one of their own kids.
Now, the contrast with a Liberal Party could not be more stark, a Liberal party that's led by a man who when he was Health Minister, 10 years ago, tried to abolish bulk billing altogether, tried to jack up the price of scripts by up to $5 a script and tried to cut $50 billion from our public hospital systems - hospitals like the John Hunter in Newcastle. And you see the Opposition again, over the last few days, absolutely drowning in their own chaos and division. Having fights over climate policy yet again, having fights over their own jockeying for internal positions. This is a Liberal Party that is focused on themselves, rather than focused on the needs of the community, which is the focus of our government, focused on strengthening Medicare, and helping with those cost of living questions that we know are impacting every household in the community. I might throw to Pat Conroy now, then I'm happy to take questions.
MEMBER FOR SHORTLAND, PAT CONROY: Thanks, Mark. And it's great to be here at the John Hunter hospital, the biggest hospital in our region, with an important announcement that's great news for the Hunter, and great news for the residents of Lake Macquarie and Newcastle, in particular. Almost 40% of presentations to the John Hunter emergency department are for non-urgent and semi-urgent cases -  cases that do need to see a doctor, but don't need particularly to see an emergency department. So the announcement today of a Medicare Urgent Care Clinic in the Lake Macquarie-Newcastle region, will help relieve the pressure on the John. I was here with a family member only a month ago, on a Saturday afternoon with a presentation that took about eight hours. The doctors and nurses were wonderful, but it could have been seen at a Medicare Urgent Care Clinic. And that's an example of what we need here. The northern Central Coast Medicare Urgent Care Clinic of Lake Haven is having a great impact down there already - seeing just under 300 patients on average a week, making a massive impact and relieving pressure on Belmont Hospital and the Wyong Hospital. Importantly, this will work in conjunction with the great GP After hours service, that Mark Butler and the Albanese Labor Government saved with our first budget. So this announcements about getting better health care for the residents of Lake Macquarie, Newcastle: free health care through bulk billing so that people can see a doctor when they need to see them and get the treatment they need. So thank you, again, Mark - for your vision and leadership in this area. I'll invite Dan to say a few words.
MEMBER FOR HUNTER, DAN REPACHOLI: Thanks, Pat. Thanks, Sharon. And thanks, Mark for being here today. What a great announcement this is for the whole of the Hunter area. Newcastle hospital here, the John Hunter Hospital, is so busy. There's so many patients coming through, so many of those patients could go to the Urgent Care Clinic that is just about to open here. We have one in Cessnock, currently, right now - that's seen over 5,300 patients since it opened late last year. And the Assistant Minister for Health Mr. McBride and I went on a tour through there, only a couple of weeks ago. And they are doing amazing things there. And now we get to see that in other areas of the Hunter abroad. So thank you, Mark, thank you to the Albanese Labor Government, for really caring for Australians and giving them what they need. And that's what we do need is good health care and the Urgent Care Clinic will give that Thank you.
JOURNALIST: I take it you’ve got people looking where to put it, at this stage?
BUTLER: That’s right. We've undertaken a competitive process right across the country. We put a call out, we asked for existing primary care businesses, particularly general practices, whether they're interested in taking their practice to the next level and becoming a Medicare Urgent Care Clinic. Obviously, there's significant funding that goes with that, to ensure they have the proper equipment that they have the proper staff in place. So there will be a similar tender to take place through the Primary Health Network here that oversees primary care services in the Hunter, New England and Central Coast area. I hope to see the clinic open as quickly as possible. We know from the clinics we opened last year, there's a huge amount of interest among general practices to take up this opportunity. I'm confident that we'll be in this case as well.
JOURNALIST: Is it possible by the end of the year or shortly after?
BUTLER: I can't promise that because there's a tender process, but I've said to the people who are undertaking these processes, I'd really like to see these up and running before the end of the year. They certainly have to be up and running this coming financial year, but I'd really like to see it before Christmas 2024. We promised to get 50 Urgent Care Clinics up before the end of last year, at the last election. This was a new model of care, we had to negotiate protocols with state governments. A whole lot of people said we wouldn't be able to do it, but we actually opened 58 Urgent Care Clinics before Christmas last year. So I think our record is there to see for people. We’ll be able to get this up and running very quickly I’m sure.
JOURNALIST: Are you hoping this will reduce the amount of people who are coming to the John Hunter?
BUTLER: People who are coming to the John Hunter as they are with every hospital emergency department in the country, have a range of different needs. There are people who still should be going to hospital, people who deal with life threatening emergencies should be coming to their local hospital. What we're trying to do, though, is to take some pressure off local emergency departments by giving those people who have non-urgent or semi-urgent presentations they need to be seen, but not necessarily by a fully equipped hospital. An alternative that will relieve pressure on this hospital ED. We've seen in all of the other areas where we’ve opened up these Urgent Care Clinics, the hospitals are reporting a decline in those semi-urgent or non-urgent presentations. Now, that doesn’t mean that every person who’s having a cardiac issue, or something shouldn’t be coming to the emergency department, they should. But we know that this will make a difference.
JOURNALIST: No doubt this is good news for patients. We're also in a region where the average out of pocket cost to see a GP is about $48. Are there broader incentives in place to alleviate that?
BUTLER:  As I said, we tripled the bulk billing incentive for GPs in last year's Budget, the biggest ever investment in bulk billing. It means that in a place like Newcastle, the income for a GP who bulk bills a pensioner or concession cardholder, or a kid under the age of 16 for a standard consult, their income grows by 34%, so a very big increase in their income. In many areas that Dan represents, it’s as much as a 50% increase in their income. Already, because of that investment, we've started to see an increase in bulk billing around the country. Now, bulk billing in this part of New South Wales is lower than the national average. It's significantly lower than some of the bulk billing rates you see, even in Sydney, particularly Western Sydney, and there is more that we want to do to get those bulk billing rates starting to rise or in Newcastle. It rose a little bit more in other parts of the Hunter Valley, but Newcastle does have a really significant challenge on bulk billing. And I'll be talking to GPs over the course of today, about other ideas of what we can do. But we really have focused very strongly on trying to give other opportunities for bulk billing.
I will say that the tripling of the incentive last year, was a direct response to a request from the College of General Practitioners. That's what they said was needed, to start to turn around bulk billing for GP visits, which was in freefall as we were coming into Government. When we delivered that in last year's Budget, as part of our strengthening Medicare agenda, the College of GPs said that that was a game changer. We have seen a big increase, but there's no question, I think all of the members of the Hunter Labor team will say that bulk billing in this region of New South Wales is not where it should be. We want to see what other ideas we have, to see it rise.
JOURNALIST: With the Urgent Care Clinic extended hours what does that likely to look like?
BUTLER: We want Urgent Care Clinics to be operating from 8am to 10pm. Not all of them have been able to do that, from the get go, that's often a reflection of some of the challenges in getting the workforce in place at some of the regional clinics like Cessnock Urgent Care Clinic. It also became clear that they needed a little bit more funding. So we delivered that in the Budget last month. And we'll now be talking to those clinics about how they can expand their hours, if they're not already operating 8am to 10pm. But seven days a week, extended hours, really makes that big difference. We're seeing 1 in 3 of these visits on the weekends, often during the day when the GP Access Program is not available for people in the Hunter. There's a big increase, a big spike in visits after the time where school sport or club sport is happening and kids get an injury - otherwise they’d be coming to the ED here at John Hunter. Being able to go to the Medicare Urgent Care Clinic if they've got a fracture in their arm, or some other injury, or some urgent illness, it gives parents a different option. It means they can be seen usually very quickly, with highly qualified staff, and as I said, take pressure off EDs.
JOURNALIST: So just in regards to vaping discussions at the moment, do you have confidence that this will pass the Senate?
BUTLER: We've had some really productive, and really mature, and constructive discussions with all of the parties in the Parliament about the importance of this. This is a huge opportunity for the Parliament to do something really meaningful and lasting for the health of young Australians. Really the only group that's completely opted out of this debate is the National Party. They said they’d oppose the legislation, even before I'd released it and they were able to read it. But everyone else is, I think, listening to parents and school communities in their area, who are all saying this is a massive public health menace. A clearly insidious cynical device to try to recruit new generations to nicotine addiction. So when we get back to Canberra, the week after next, that legislation is due to be debated in the Senate. I really hope that Senators right across the political spectrum, grasp this opportunity to do that really meaningful, lasting thing to improve the health of young Australians.
JOURNALIST: Have you had any concerns or reservations about the Coalition saying that they won’t discuss current climate targets in the next election?
CONROY: Let's be very clear, Peter Dutton’s policy of taking us backwards on climate is bad for jobs in Australia, it’s bad for energy prices in this country, with his nuclear madness, but it's also bad for our relationship in the Pacific. Under Scott Morrison, we had incredibly low point with our relationship in the Pacific because he was seen as blocking climate action. He was accused of bullying Pacific leaders when they tried to talk about climate policy in the Pacific. So Peter Dutton being more right wing than Scott Morrison, Peter Dutton, doing less on climate than Scott Morrison, means a worse relationship with the Pacific and that weakens our national security. Peter Dutton is weak on national security because he's opposed to climate action, which will hurt our relationship in the Pacific, creating a vacuum for other countries to fill.
BUTLER: Thanks everyone.