August 09, 2023

LISA MILLAR, HOST: Health Minister Mark Butler joins us now from Parliament House. Minister, good morning. Welcome to News Breakfast. 
MILLAR: How are the numbers playing out this morning? Are you going to be able to get this through? 
BUTLER: We're determined to get this through. We're obviously talking to the crossbench. We'd given up on support from the Coalition. They opposed this when it was first recommended to them five years ago: to halve the price of scripts for these common medicines that people take with ongoing health conditions, not just for years but often for decades or the rest of their lives. So, we didn't have much hope of support from the Coalition or the powerful pharmacy lobby, but we've had really fruitful discussions with the crossbench. And the time for a decision in the Senate is this morning.
MILLAR: If it's such a no brainer, why are you even at this point having to talk to the crossbench? Why aren't you so sure of their support?
BUTLER: We’ve had really fruitful discussions with them. Often, they hold their cards close to their chest before a vote. So, I don't take anything for granted in this business. But I think we've made the case about why this is a very sound policy. Around the world, pretty much every country we usually compare ourselves to allows 60- or 90-day scripts for these ongoing health conditions. It was recommended, as I say, by the experts five years ago. It's supported by every patient group that I can think of, and every doctors’ group, because it will be good for the hip pocket, but also it will free up millions of GP consults that I know your viewers understand are desperately needed out there. Currently they're being used just to give routine repeat scripts when they're desperately needed for other health conditions.
MILLAR: The Pharmacy Guild has said that there could be 20,000 jobs lost, services cut in regional areas. The opposition is asking you to pause it. You've said that hasn't been on the table before is your response to that. But what's wrong with looking at a pause right now if there is a sense that it's been rushed?
BUTLER: I don't agree it’s been rushed, and I don't agree that the proposal is to pause it. I've read the motion that the Coalition is moving this morning. It doesn't seek to delay this by six months, as they've said. The motion is to disallow the measure so it would go altogether. And I think the evidence is there to see about what the Coalition and the powerful pharmacy lobby think about this. Five years ago, they opposed this measure when it was recommended to them. Today, they oppose this measure. And I have no doubt, frankly, in six months’ time they will still oppose this measure. We are determined to deliver cheaper medicines. We are determined to free up all of those GP consults. And the time for a decision is this morning, for the Senate. Do they back this powerful pharmacy lobby or do they back the interests of patients and the support of every patient group and every doctors’ group in the country?
MILLAR: So, no need for any further consultation or modelling on this?
BUTLER: Over the last several months since I first announced this policy, I said, first of all, we would reinvest every single dollar the Commonwealth saves from this measure - which is about $1.2 billion - every single dollar back into the pharmacy sector, and that we would talk to pharmacies and crossbenchers and others about the best way to invest that money. For example, last week I announced the last tranche of that investment, which will go to support particularly smaller rural pharmacies that depend more on income from dispensing medicines than perhaps some of the bigger pharmacies in the cities do. So, you know, I've held to that commitment. I've consulted about the reinvestment. It's time now to back the interests of patients.
MILLAR: What can you do if you lose on this front? What happens then?
BUTLER: If we lose on this front, essentially the Coalition and the pharmacy lobby win again, over the interests of patients. 6 million patients won't get access to cheaper medicines, halving the cost of their medicines that they're on for years or even decades. You'll still see those GP rooms clogged up with consults just to get a routine repeat script. And all of the reinvestments that I've talked about and committed to: additional vaccinations available at chemists and many other things besides, they'll go as well.
MILLAR: What happens to the next five-year deal re: the PBS? There’s been some suggestion that you could “blow it up” to quote one commentator.
BUTLER: I've said - after a request from the pharmacy lobby - that we would agree to bring forward the negotiations for the next Community Pharmacy Agreement. These are five-year Agreements that have run now for a few decades, that we would bring forward those negotiations. Otherwise, the current Agreement runs until 2025. But obviously, bringing forward those negotiations is connected to this measure going through the Senate. If the pharmacy lobby and the Coalition manage to block this access to cheaper medicines, obviously there's no need for those expedited negotiations. We'll let the current agreement run out and we'll see what we do in 2025.
MILLAR: Minister, just two other things I want to ask you about, because you've talked about the cost of living many times in this interview, and we saw yesterday the Commonwealth Bank’s $10 billion profit that was announced. The Greens again are ramping up this suggestion that there should be a super profits tax. The Government is so big on cost of living, how do you then speak the language of this kind of profit to Australians who are watching you this morning?
BUTLER: I think Australians want a strong banking sector and that's certainly something that the Government is focused on. We have one of the strongest banking sectors in the world and that's carried us through a number of global economic crises over the last couple of decades. But obviously we want banks to think carefully about the interests of their customers as well. And I think those are the two guiding points we have as a Government.
MILLAR: Are you uncomfortable about that size of profit, and the hardships that many people who are paying off their loans are facing at the moment?
BUTLER: I think the Treasurer, Jim Chalmers, the Prime Minister, all of us, have said how focused we are on the interests of families right now and the pressure that they're facing through this global cost of living shock. That's why we are so determined to pass cost of living measures like the one we've been talking about this morning - the cheaper medicines measure.
BUTLER: Just on this product that people are a bit concerned about: “Hard Solo” - this alcoholic beverage. We're going to be speaking to one of the Teals a bit later in the program, because they think that this does not pass “the pub test” so to speak. That it looks too much like the non-alcoholic Solo. It's now being marketed by Asahi, the Japanese beverage company. There’s questions about advertising rules. Are you a bit concerned about this?
BUTLER: I've seen this story over the last 24 hours, and I've asked my Department for some advice about it. I'm also keen to talk to the Teals who've shown a particular interest in this. I think over the last several months I've shown my determination to crack down on companies that are frankly marketing unhealthy products to kids – I’ve particularly focused on the tobacco industry and their marketing of vapes or e-cigarettes to kids. We're determined to stamp that out. And I think it's really important that companies and governments, frankly, are focused on making sure that kids, in particular, are not exposed to cynical marketing of unhealthy products. Now, I'll hold my judgement on this particular one. I haven't seen the can, I haven't seen the product and the advertising behind it. But our general principle is quite clear: alcohol and products like that are for adults to consume in a responsible fashion. They should not be marketed to kids.
MILLAR: All right. Thanks very much for joining us this morning, Minister.
BUTLER: Thanks Lisa.