CHRIS O’KEEFE, HOST: I’ve said this many times before, if something doesn’t look right all you have to do is let us know. Because I want to tell you the story of Sydney mum, Alicia, she's from Boorowa Heights in our north, and Alicia got in touch on the email. She's got a little 4-year-old little boy called Hamish. Now, unfortunately Hamish does suffer from some pretty bad asthma as a lot of kids do, it’s not uncommon. But up until now, Alicia has been able to go to the GP and get a script for a common asthma preventative called Flixotide Junior is the drug's name. It is a critical medication for little Hamish, and it stops him having bad asthma attacks during the day.
But then on 1 April this year, everything changed. Suddenly Alicia could not get the important preventative medication at the GP anymore. She now has to go to her GP, get a referral to the paediatrician or a respiratory physician, book in with them, wait to get a booking with them, when she goes and sees them then she can get the script, then she's got to go to the chemist, and then she gets the medication. You know how hard it is to get time with a paediatrician at the moment? It is so difficult, and when you do, they don’t miss you when it comes to fees. So it seems ridiculous that a GP couldn't just bulk-bill, give you the script, and she can fill it when she goes to the chemist.
So why did it all change? We’ve been working on this all day with the Federal Health Minister Mark Butler to try to get some answers. But first, Hamish’s mum Alicia is on the line for us now to run us through it. Alicia, thanks for your time.
ALICIA, CALLER: Hi Chris, thanks for having me.
O’KEEFE: You’re welcome. Thank you for coming on. So, take us back to the start, explain Hamish’s condition.
ALICIA: Sure. So, Hamish has had asthma since he was about two years old, and his GP had put him on this preventative medication for his asthma called Flixotide Junior, which we needed a script to get filled. And we’ve always been able to get that through our GP, it’s never been an issue, and then just recently they've now decided that we need to go to a paediatrician to get this script for a very important medication for Hamish. It prevents him essentially from having an asthma attack and ending up in hospital. So, it's really important but it's a fairly common medications as well, and now we need to go to a GP to get the script.
O’KEEFE: Flixotide Junior, so you've got to go to your GP and get a referral to the paediatrician, how long does it take you to get a booking with them?
ALICIA: Yeah, I mean, how long is a piece of string? Trying to get in and see a paediatrician is incredibly difficult, but it's also really cost prohibitive. I mean, we did see one a couple of weeks ago and it was $280 to see the paediatrician, and yes, we got $120 back from Medicare but it’s still incredibly expensive and that’s even if you can get an appointment with one.
O’KEEFE: So, what was the justification of why the Federal Government, or you were told the change was made in the first place so you couldn't just get it from your GP?
ALICIA: We haven’t been told of any reason. We’re not aware of any reason other than this is just the new protocol.
O’KEEFE: How important is Flixotide Junior for little Hamish?
ALICIA: Oh, incredibly important. I mean, especially as we're going into winter, you know, coughs are really common especially when they’re at daycare. He has to have two puffs every morning, two puffs every night. So, it’s pretty core that we have it, and especially with COVID still being around as well, we’re mindful of respiratory infections. So, yeah, we need to have it. It’s really difficult if we have to be seeing a paediatrician to get a script.
O’KEEFE: Flixotide Junior, I know it’s incredibly important, but not having it for little Hamish, has he had bad asthma attacks before?
ALICIA: Yeah, absolutely, yep –
O’KEEFE: Is it frightening? –
ALICIA: - we’ve ended up in hospital. When your child can’t breathe it’s as scary as anything, yeah, absolutely.
O’KEEFE: Well, Alicia, I told you I’ve been working on this all day, we’ve been speaking to Mark Butler the Health Minister’s office about this and I've got some news for you. Mark Butler, the federal Health Minister, he's on the line live. Minister Butler, g’day.
MINISTER FOR HEALTH, MARK BUTLER: G’day, how are you? I have been listening to Alicia’s call. Thank you Alicia for coming on the phone.
ALICIA: Thank you very much for listening.
BUTLER: I've been working on this now for some weeks. This was a decision made over the course of summer by the group that looks after our medicines system, our terrific PBS system, one of the best systems in the world called the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee. It's a group of medicines experts and researchers, effectively. They made a recommendation to essentially the Department, not particularly to the Government, that the changes you've described, be put in place. I really didn't become aware of it until March, when the company that makes Flixotide first contacted my office and then we reached out to Asthma Australia, to clinicians in the area, to families like yours Alicia, and had a series of discussions about this.
I then took the pretty unusual decision, because I don't do this lightly, and wrote to these experts and asked them very respectfully to review that decision. It didn't seem to me that it was in line with the asthma management guidelines, and certainly was causing a lot of distress to families like Alicia’s, who were faced with a very cumbersome process and real difficulty getting an appointment.
But as you point out, Chris, the cost of seeing a specialist is pretty high. You would have seen in this week’s Budget we're very committed as a government to trying to get gap fees down, to allow people to have bulk billed visits to GPs, particularly for kids. I'm really glad to say that after I wrote to that committee in late April, they pulled together a meeting really quickly, which I was thankful for, and reviewed that decision and decided to go back to the original system of GP prescribing. And they wrote to me only a day or two ago to inform me of that change. Now it's going to take me a few weeks to put that into operation, but I'm really glad that we are now going to revert to the original system, which is that GPs can prescribe this and indeed if young ones are on the medicine before their sixth birthday, on Flixotide and are stable, they can continue after their sixth birthday to get that at PBS rates as well - as a result of the change in the decision that was communicated to me a few days ago.
O’KEEFE: Alicia, what do you think about that? You fixed it!
ALICIA: Wow, that's incredible. Thank you, Mr. Butler. I really, really appreciate that. I know a lot of families and mums I've been chatting to will be blown away by that decision. Thank you.
O’KEEFE: Minister Butler, congratulations. Who says governments can't do the right thing?
BUTLER: This was a funny one this one and as I said, I don't do it lightly. The experts that oversee the PBS do an amazing job, but this one just didn't ring true for me after I talked to a range of parents like Alicia and to the clinicians and to the company that makes this fabulous medicine, GSK. So, I did take that decision to ask them politely to review the decision, and I'm really glad they came together very quickly and made a new decision.
O’KEEFE: I'm really pleased that you were able to fix it Minister Butler and your department and everyone else was able to get on board because after hearing Alicia’s story and I'm sure that there's multitudes of people who are in the same boat as Alicia and little Hamish, they'll now be able to just get the medicine that they need pretty easily and that's what it's all about, right?
BUTLER: That's right, Chris.
O’KEEFE: Good on you, Minister. I really appreciate your time. Thank you for jumping on. And Alicia, thank you for sending us your email we're pleased to say that we were able to put you in touch with the Federal Health Minister and he's been able to announce live here on 2GB it's all fixed, so well done.