Interview with Simon Lauder on ABC South East NSW Breakfast
SIMON LAUDER, HOST: Well, it’s time to talk federal politics now, and it’s perhaps a bit busier this time of year for our federal MPs than it might normally be as the Government tries to get its energy pricing package through Parliament and, as you also heard in the news this morning, official health statistics confirm what you probably already know, it’s getting harder to see a GP who bulk bills. The latest Medicare figures show the bulk billing rate dropped from 87 per cent to 83.4 per cent between July and September this year, and it was 88.4 per cent last year. To discuss this and more, we are joined by the Member for Eden-Monaro, Kristy McBain. Good morning.
KRISTY MCBAIN, MINISTER: Good morning, Simon.
SIMON LAUDER: Thanks so much for joining us. So, are you – I guess, as concerned – as others in the South East about what is going on with bulk billing rates lately?
KRISTY MCBAIN: Look, like many people, bulk billing is a huge concern for me but access to GPs across our region is also a big concern. It’s one of the reasons that the Labor Party went to the election saying we really need to strengthen Medicare, because we know how much we rely on it, and over the last few years, we’ve seen a freeze in the Medicare rebate. We’ve seen the number of GPs in regional areas decreasing and we’ve seen, I guess, an escalation in presentations to emergency because that primary healthcare network isn’t as strong as we want.
So, even just this week, our Strengthening Medicare Taskforce was meeting in Canberra to discuss all of these issues, and we need to work closely with the experts in the field. That Strengthening Medicare Taskforce involves professionals from across the allied health network, including primary health care, to discuss some of the big issues and how we change it so that we can make sure that access to GPs and access to bulk billing doesn’t leave our regional and rural areas.
SIMON LAUDER: And some news on bulk billing for psychologist consultations this week with Mark Butler, the Health Minister, announcing that instead of Medicare paying for 20 visits to a psychologist per year, as has been the case during the pandemic, it’s going to bump back down to 10 visits per year. Look, does this leave you concerned for how people in our region are going to access these kinds of psychologist services?
KRISTY MCBAIN: Yes, well, these were always a temporary measure which were due to expire at the end of this year. One of the reasons that we’re not going to continue the measure is because a study done by Melbourne University found that people weren’t able to access those 20 sessions, especially people in rural, regional and remote Australia. They are among the people who couldn’t actually access any additional services, and that definitely corresponds with the conversations I’ve had with people across Eden-Monaro and more broadly across regional Australia in this portfolio is that they just don’t have access to the services. So, in light of those findings, what we’re doing is bringing some key experts together in early 2023 to give some advice to Government on how we can improve access for all Australians.
You know, it’s great to have those services there, but if they’re not being accessed – and the data shows us that most Australians are only accessing an average of five sessions and more than 83 per cent who were using the program were accessing 10 or fewer sessions, so we really need to think about how people access the services, and the biggest concern I heard from people was that they just couldn’t access any of those services available. So, we need to think about how we can make it more equitable across the board, and my real concern is making sure that we’ve got those professionals available for people in our region.
SIMON LAUDER: Yeah, and I guess the same conundrum applies when it comes to most medical specialists, but how do you go about attracting more psychologists and psychiatrists to Eden-Monaro? As far as I’m aware, there aren’t any psychiatrists here.
KRISTY MCBAIN: Look, it’s a real challenge and we need to sell the message that, you know, you can have a fulfilling career in our regions. We know that there are a lot of people who love living in our regions but sometimes accessing those professional services can be much harder. So, we’ve got a challenge to show people how important it is to work in our regions. But we also have to utilise our technology to make sure that we don’t have people travelling, you know, 8-10 hours return to see a specialist in this country. So, I think there’s some really important work that is being done by the Strengthening Medicare Taskforce on those issues.
SIMON LAUDER: Okay, and to power prices now and the Government’s plan to temporarily cap coal and gas prices. Are you heading back to Canberra soon to try to pass this through Parliament?
KRISTY McBAIN: Yeah, absolutely. Parliament has been recalled for Thursday to talk about the Energy Price Relief Plan, and you know, we’ve spent the last nearly seven months in government with the opposition asking us what we’re going to do about energy prices and we now have a plan and they’re telling us that they won’t vote for it, so they’re effectively voting for higher energy prices across the board. I think it’s really important that we all come together. This should be a bipartisan moment where we are working together to deliver that immediate cost‑of‑living relief to Aussies everywhere and especially to our small businesses, and I hope that there is a change of tune by the opposition.
SIMON LAUDER: And the Greens not committing to supporting this cap on gas and coal prices either, saying instead the Government should freeze power bills for two years. I guess you wouldn’t go ahead and reconvene Parliament if the Prime Minister didn’t think it could pass. Do you think it’s going to be a problem getting it through?
KRISTY MCBAIN: Look, you know, there are political parties that need to make their points but let’s hope everyone is pragmatic about this. We are being told by small businesses, we’re being told by householders, that they need some assistance, especially with the escalating price of energy. This is a mechanism to do that, and I hope everybody gets on board because it’s the most important thing that we could be and should be doing right before Christmas.
SIMON LAUDER: And you were in Wonboyn recently with some good news for people who have become accustomed to being flooded in every time there’s some heavy rains in Wonboyn?
KRISTY MCBAIN: Yes, that’s right. I mean, Watergums Bridge, I think, has flooded six times in the last year alone, and so it was really pleasing to be down there with Bega Valley Shire Council and with members of the Wonboyn community. So, the Australian Government will be providing $3.5 million to work with the council on lifting the approaches to Watergums Bridge and lifting that bridge itself so it will become a concrete double-lane structure, and really keen to make sure that that addresses the big issue. I mean, we’ve talked about it quite frequently that, you know, we shouldn’t be just replacing infrastructure that continues to be impacted in times of natural disaster and this is a prime example of making sure that we are dealing with the community’s expectations, and that is that we won’t waste money on doing the same thing knowing that it’s going to be inundated each and every time – that we’re building it to be more resilient against future flooding issues.
SIMON LAUDER: Great to talk to you this morning. Likely the last time we hear from you live on ABC South East before Christmas and the new year, so thank you very much for all your chats this year and we’ll catch up in 2023.
KRISTY MCBAIN: My pleasure, Simon. Merry Christmas to you and all your listeners and as we head into Christmas don’t forget to shop local – super important – and enjoy the holiday break.
SIMON LAUDER: And Merry Christmas to you as well. Kristy McBain, the Member for Eden-Monaro and Minister for Regional Development, Local Government and Territories in the Albanese Government.