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Transcript of interview with Sabra Lane: ABC Radio National: 6 March 2018: highest bulk billing on record; million minds mental health mission; medical research future fund

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The Hon. Greg Hunt MP Minister for Health


6 March 2018



Topics: Highest bulk billing on record; Million Minds Mental Health Mission; Medical Research Future Fund

SABRA LANE: The Federal Government is establishing a special research fund to find better ways of treating mental illness and even preventing it. Part of the money will come from the Medical Research Future Fund. It was set up three years ago with the aim of accumulating $20 billion by 2021.

Its goal to keep Australians healthier as they age, finding cures for incurable conditions and better way to treat disease. There’s no money in the mental health account yet, but it has a mission, to transform the lives and the treatment of a million people during the next decade.

The Health Minister is Greg Hunt. And he joins me now to discuss it. Good morning, welcome to the program.

GREG HUNT: And good morningSabra.

SABRA LANE: Now, you held a meeting yesterday at Parliament with experts in the field, researchers and community leaders in mental health to discuss this. What have you resolved?

GREG HUNT: So, we met yesterday with some of Australia’s extraordinary mental health leaders such as Professor Pat McGorry, Professor Helen Milroy, Ian Hickie, one of Australia’s great leaders, and many, many others from right across the sector. The agreement yesterday was to work towards a national million minds mental health mission. So, that’s about transforming a million minds over the course of the next decade of either preventing, treating or helping recovery for people. It’s over and above what’s already happening.

We’ve put about $4.2 billion into mental health but this is the next phase, the next step. Because we know that about 4 million Australians every year have mental health challenges. So, what we want to do is use The Medical Research Future Fund for one of these national missions, exactly as it was intended, to transform lives, to discover new ways of treatment and to deliver people a sense of practical hope that their conditions can and will be addressed.

SABRA LANE: How much money are you hoping for this mission and are you hoping that private companies contribute as well as public funds going into this?

GREG HUNT: So, I won’t put a figure on it just yet because we’ve begun the process of building the mission with both patients and experts around the country. But over the course of the next six months we’ll reach the point of announcement on that.

SABRA LANE: Should we expect something in the Budget, or?

GREG HUNT: Well, over the course of the next months. But the process we’re following is what we’ve done with the Australian Brain Cancer Mission, where we went through these roundtables, we agreed firstly on a national road map of priorities such as working with young people, those who are being discharged from hospitals, Indigenous Australians who suffer particularly, elderly where we have very high rates of mental health challenge.

And as a consequence of the road map with the Brain Cancer Mission, we were then able to unify the sector, lay down a $50 million package from the Government and we thought it would take us three years to attract $50 million of private philanthropic funding. Three months in we’re almost at that point where that’s been doubled and matched. And so this is a vehicle for government funding but also to attract state and philanthropic funding.

SABRA LANE: Does Australia have the right kind of infrastructure to support the kind of research that you believe is needed in mental health?

GREG HUNT: Well, we do. Mental health research is the third most significant area after cancer and cardiac under the existing National Health and Medical Research Council. But what we want to do is be able to build on that through the Medical Research Future Fund with what are called clinical trials, so these are where it’s not just the lab, it’s actually working with people on their experience, giving them treatment but then taking that back to say what is working, what is not working and then being able to expand it out further.

SABRA LANE: What about the right brains to make this happen? Seventy per cent of researchers in this field are women and many of them leave because of the challenges they face at a particular time in their life. And usually that’s applying for government grants year-after-year, as well as juggling family responsibilities.

GREG HUNT: Well, this is exactly right. So, the workforce was one of the areas identified yesterday in the roundtable. And what that means is that there has to be a focus on early and mid-career clinical fellowships and this is one of the areas under the Medical Research Future Fund we’ve opened up.

So, we started off, very deliberately, with the Rare Cancers, Rare Diseases Clinical Trial Programs. We’re also working on Clinical Fellowships, which is support for early and mid-career researchers right across the medical space but in particular we will have a component for mental health and psychological service research. It’s something that’s new, something that’s vital and something which has come directly out of the advice of those within the field.

SABRA LANE: Alright, it’s called a mission. The innovation tsar Bill Ferris recently talked about setting up missions to make Australia healthier and also to really focus attention on developing our R&D capability and our research capability. Is this part of his overall idea?

GREG HUNT: Yes, it’s something we’ve worked on together now for 18 months. The combination of Bill Ferris, myself, Alan Finkel who’s the Chief Scientist and the Prime Minister, I have to say, I am in a very fortunate position. A Prime Minister who’s deeply committed to the medical innovation space and in particular to better outcomes on mental health.

So he’s been tremendously supportive and if you put that group together, along with others, we’re laying down a series of long term national missions. One brain cancer, two we’ve already talked about the focus on long term precision medicine or the ability to diagnose previously undiagnosable conditions and potentially to treat them over time. And three we’re now looking at the Million Minds mental health initiative.

SABRA LANE: Separately you’ve released figures today showing the rate of bulk billing is still increasing. How sustainable is it?

GREG HUNT: So this is another record outcome for bulk billing. What does bulk billing mean? It means you go to the doctor and you don’t pay. So, we now have the highest half-yearly figures on record for the second half of the last year. They’re the figures that have just come through today, 85.8 per cent, up almost half a per cent on a year ago and up almost 4 per cent on Labor’s last year. It’s 28 million extra services.

So, I won’t make predictions about the future, but in every corner that I’ve been in the role, there have been record figures and what that says is contrary to some of the claims by the Labor opposition, bulk billing and Medicare are stronger than ever before, which means people not paying out of their pocket for visiting the doctor.

SABRA LANE: It’s reported this morning that the Prime Minister is devising a defence of his leadership in the event of 30 failed Newspolls in a row. What kind of support does he have from the frontbench given that he will fail that test?

GREG HUNT: Well I don’t accept the outcome but I don’t think that’s the real point in any event. He’s got a very, very strong and unified frontbench. Complete support right across the cabinet and the ministry and our task is to get on with doing the job.

In the last week for example just in Health, support for endometriosis research, rapid access to medicinal cannabis in a landmark agreement with New South Wales, new immunisation programs to prevent beautiful young children, bulk billing figures.

SABRA LANE: Sure, but those messages keep getting drowned out by other controversies, whether it be Newspoll, whether it be Barnaby Joyce continuing to talk about himself.

GREG HUNT: So long as there is an Australian Parliament and so long as there’s media, there will always be other stories. And I respect that and that’s part of the news cycle. Our job and what the public want us to do is to deliver better health, education and economic outcomes. In particular with over 400,000 jobs in the last year, that’s an extraordinary human outcome. It’s an economic outcome, but above all else, it’s a human outcome. That’s what we’re doing in health, that’s what we’re doing with the economy.

SABRA LANE: Health Minister Greg Hunt, thanks for joining AM this morning.

GREG HUNT: Thanks, Sabra.