CHRIS O’KEEFE, HOST: We've got some big, big news out of Canberra. It's news, I think, that is important for all of us. You will be able to get 60-days’ worth of medicine at your local pharmacy from the 1st of next month - so, September 1. We've covered this at length on this show. I've always been a supporter of what the Federal Government's been doing on this. I understand how difficult it is for pharmacies, but ultimately there's more issues at play here and cheaper medicines is important for all of us. Now, yesterday, the Coalition - this was very weird by the Coalition - they announced that they would seek to delay the new guidelines with a vote in the Senate because the pharmacists weren't looked after or consulted properly. But then this morning, they say, well, we're going to have to delay the delay. The opposition health spokesperson, Anne Ruston, said, look, well, we want the Government to consult further with pharmacists that could be affected by this. But in the last hour, the government decided we're going to bring the vote on, and they won. So, it looks like the 60-days’ worth of medicine is coming your way. Mark Butler, the Federal Health Minister, he's the one that made the change and good on him. He's on the line now. Minister, thanks for your time.
MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE, MARK BUTLER: My pleasure.
O’KEEFE: Can you explain to me what was all this about - I know it's sort of parliamentary theatrics, but what was this?
BUTLER: Yeah, there was a lot of parliamentary theatrics. And in the Senate, I'm not sure I understand all of the procedure myself, being a Member of the House of Reps, but the short simple answer is that yesterday the Coalition and Pauline Hanson lodged a motion not to delay, but to disallow our cheaper medicines reforms altogether. Then they said, “oh, look, maybe we don't want to vote on it today” - even though it was scheduled for a vote today – “maybe we'll deal with it when Parliament comes back in three weeks’ time.” The problem with that, of course, is that by then the measure would have taken effect, as you said, it comes into effect on the 1st of September for the first tranche of medicines. So saying, “oh we will deal with this, you know, down the track after it already takes effect,” what does that mean for thousands of GPs, thousands of pharmacies and most importantly, millions of patients? They don't know, if a 60-day script got issued, would it end up ultimately being illegal and unable to be filled, and the patient having to go back to a GP for a 30-day script? So, I said, enough nonsense. At the end of the day, everyone's heard the arguments. The pharmacy lobby's been up in this building lobbying furiously for a long time. The patient groups have been making their support very clear. The doctors’ groups have been up here. The senators all know the argument. Let's just have the vote. Let's just hear the will of the Senate and the will of the Senate finally was determined later this afternoon. And it was clearly supportive of our position. I think that's going to be good for the hip pockets of 6 million patients who live with ongoing health conditions for these common medicines.
O’KEEFE: I think the Coalition would just remind themselves that you guys did take to the election cheaper medicines, and you won it.
BUTLER: That's right, and this is long standing advice. They were provided with the same advice five years ago that we've acted on. But the difference is they chose not to act on it. The pharmacy lobby said they didn't want it to go ahead. So, in the interim - five years - patients have literally shelled out hundreds of millions of dollars in fees that the medicines experts who manage our medicines scheme said they shouldn't have had to. So, it's good for their hip pocket at a time of a global cost of living shock. We also know from evidence overseas, though, that these longer scripts improve medication compliance - people taking their medicines - so it's good for their health as well. But out there, I'm sure your listeners are having trouble getting in to see a GP, it's also going to free up millions of GP consults that are currently used for people to go in and just get a routine repeat script. They'll be all freed up and be made available to people who are on the waiting list, trying to get in for a serious health condition. So, it's good for the health system, which is why every patient group, every doctors’ group very strongly supported us.
O’KEEFE: So as of September 1st, Minister, that's it - if I go to the doctors and I need a script for something, it'll be for 60 days?
BUTLER: It depends on the medicine. There are 300 medicines that were identified by the experts, generally they are medicines for ongoing health conditions. It just doesn't make sense to have a 30-day script for a medicine that people are on not only for years, but often for decades.
O’KEEFE: Like cholesterol drugs and stuff like that?
BUTLER: Cholesterol, hypertension, if you've got chronic diabetes, all those sorts of things. The 30-day script system was invented at a time, really, when people had a single course of medicine because they might have gone to the doctor with an infectious disease or they fell off a ladder. That's not what medicine looks like anymore. Medicine tends more to be chronic disease: diabetes, asthma, arthritis, blood pressure, high cholesterol, all those things. This is why every other country we compare ourselves to has already done this because it just doesn't make sense to have patients going back every month for a medicine - the same dose that they've been on year in, year out, decade in, decade out.
O’KEEFE: On the Pharmacy Guild and the pharmacies themselves on their concerns, you will sit down and work them out, though?
BUTLER: We've promised to reinvest every single dollar we save as a government from this measure back into pharmacies, with a particular focus on smaller rural pharmacies that depend on the income from dispensing medicines rather than retail. In the bigger city pharmacies, you'll have a lot of retail as part of their business and so on. So, we've said we'd reinvest every single dollar and I'm delivering on that commitment. We also said we'd bring forward the negotiation of the next agreement with the community pharmacy sector, and we're ready to start sitting down with the pharmacy groups now to start doing that as well.
O’KEEFE: Minister, I've got to run, but just before I let you go, just on the aged care, the Webster packs going into aged care homes, that was largely nonsense. You're not going to let that stop, are you?
BUTLER: I was furious about that, I have to say. I've heard a lot of base scare campaigns around this measure over the last few months, but the pharmacy lobby and the Coalition both know that aged care facilities are funded to deliver medicines, including Webster packs, so, medicine packaging to their residents, they get funded for that. And there is a specific legal prohibition against aged care residents being charged for Webster packs. The Coalition knew that, certainly the Pharmacy Guild knew that, the journalists who reported it maybe didn't, but perhaps should have made enquiries before they reported it, because what this ended up doing is scaring hundreds of thousands of people in aged care - our most vulnerable residents. So, it was complete rubbish. It was particularly base and self-serving. I was very angry about it, and I hope it hasn't frightened too many older Australians and their families. It will not be happening legally. It cannot happen.
O’KEEFE: Minister, appreciate your time. Good on you.
BUTLER: Thanks, mate.