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09 Feb 2017

Health Minister Greg Hunt speaks exclusively to Australian Medicine.

Greg Hunt isn’t kidding when he says he has been closely linked to the medical profession all his life.

From the moment his appointment was announced, the new Federal Health Minister was quick to ensure all Australia knew about his pedigree.

His mother was a nurse, his wife is a nurse, and he has many close friends and neighbours who are doctors and other medical professionals.

But wait, there’s more.

“I have an uncle who has been a dentist into his late 70s and my grandmother was one of Victoria’s first female pharmacists,” he told Australian Medicine.

“So I was brought up in the medical world. There is always an enormous amount to learn, but I’m fortunate to be surrounded – not just at the national level, but with a lot of close family and friends – by what I think is as good a medical profession as there is.”

So perhaps Health Minister is Greg Hunt’s destiny.

Not if you go by his track record and take note of his ambition.

The health sector can be certain Mr Hunt will devote great levels of time, effort, energy and skill to his lofty new role. But his destiny could be even higher.

Those close to him share a similar view: “Greg wants to go all the way… and he just might get there one day.”

Turn to the task currently at hand and it is clear that Greg Hunt wants to be the very best of health ministers.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull placed a huge load of responsibility and cast a massive vote of confidence in appointing Mr Hunt to the Health portfolio in the wake of Sussan Ley’s resignation.

Already a long-serving Cabinet Minister, he brings to the new job a wealth of experience and the respect of his colleagues.

He has at times been controversial.

Yet he has a record of achievement and – so far – he is saying the right things to the medical profession.

He has pronounced his “fundamental commitment” to Medicare, the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and private health insurance.

“We are committed to all three of them. That’s a very important point,” he said.

“The Labor Party created Medicare and all credit to them. Then there’s the PBS. The PBS was brought in by Menzies.

“Then there’s private health insurance, which was brought in by Menzies and then saved, after the rates dropped to 30 per cent, by John Howard and (former health minister) Michael Wooldridge.

“We (the Liberal Party) have created two of the three federal rocks that have been the foundation stones of the system and we are fundamentally committed to all three of them.”

Such a fulsome expression of commitment to Medicare is necessary for the Turnbull Government to repeatedly make, after having been walloped in last year’s election by the “Mediscare” campaign executed by Labor.

But beyond that controversial issue, Mr Hunt has given himself the task of being the “Minister for GPs”, for which doctors will hold him to account.

“My very first call after being announced was to (AMA President) Michael Gannon and that was conscious and deliberate,” the Minister said.

“I think the AMA is the absolute cornerstone of the medical profession and the sector in Australia.

“I think of it as a profession and a sector, not as an industry. I don’t think that’s the right way to characterise it. That undersells what it is. It’s a vocation.

“As part of that, what I have developed and agreed with the Prime Minister is that we will create a long-term national health plan. We’re looking out to 2030. That will be built on four pillars.

“The first pillar is Medicare, universal health and support for the medical profession. I think it’s important to emphasise that we’re committed to an increase in funding for Medicare every year.

“And we’re committed to patients having access to doctors and nurses, having access to drugs and having access to hospitals on a universal basis. That’s universal access to doctors, to medicine and to hospitals.

“The second thing is strengthening the hospital system and that’s both the public and the private. I think you find that they are increasingly interdependent.

“The third pillar is mental health and preventive health. The figures in Australia are astonishing. I knew before this, because our family experienced mental health challenges.”

Mr Hunt is comfortable now talking about the mental health issues he witnessed growing up.

But there was a time when he wasn’t so keen to share his family’s experience.

“My mother had bipolar and manic depression. The last time I saw her, she was in care in a federal health institution in Melbourne in the early 1990s,” he said.

“That’s when she passed, and I didn’t talk about that for two decades. I was the typical Australian male and I didn’t talk about it.

“And one day something happened and I did and it was quite a moving experience. It was only then that I really began to discover just how widespread this is.

“Coming into the portfolio, what that they told me – and I checked and rechecked the figures – is that about four million Australians each year either have chronic or episodic mental health challenges.

“That’s a huge portion of the population and what that says is, it’s normal.

“The first message I want to get out is that there are many, many people who have done great work about destigmatising it, but I want to be able to say to people that it’s normal and it’s right to seek help.

“But then, what I want above all else is to deliver more frontline mental health workers, not just for youth but also for seniors. Right across the spectrum because it affects all ages, all ethnicities, all demographics.

“Mental health is a huge part of this going forward and the PM and I are just tied together on this idea of preventive health and mental health as a unified program. And Indigenous health, in particular, falls into both of those elements.”

The fourth of the new Minister’s pillars is medical research.

He applauds the long and strong tradition of medical research in Australia, pointing out that many women have pioneered and excelled in the field.

As an example of his commitment to medical research, the Minister points to the recent World Cancer Day round of announcements.

Visiting the Peter MacCallum Centre in Victoria, Mr Hunt announced $125.3 million funding grants for research into cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, mental health and Indigenous health issues, among a long list of projects.

“These are going towards medical breakthroughs,” he said.

“The five-year grants will enable highly experienced researchers to work together to tackle difficult problems in health and medicine.

“So that’s the broad direction where I’m heading. And along the way I’m engaging the AMA in the long-term plan. The only way this works is as a partnership.”

On the topics doctors want to hear more about, however, the Minister isn’t giving too much away – yet.

On lifting the Medicare rebate freeze?

“I am deeply aware that this is of immense importance to doctors. I’ll underline deeply aware,” he said.

“I am working on the long-term national health plan and I won’t comment on any specific measures right now, but the first two areas are Medicare and the medical profession.

“I’ve had a very constructive engagement with Michael Gannon and the AMA on this so far. So I’ll just say that I am deeply aware.”

On Health Care Home Trials?

“Yes, yes, yes. I’ve discussed that with Michael Gannon and what I do want to do is get input into it and make sure it reflects the desires and proposals of the profession.”

And on making grounds in Indigenous health?

“Like I mentioned, Indigenous health is research and preventive health. Getting the early stage treatment, getting kids’ engagement in sport and healthy habits. There is a lot of work that can be done on early intervention.”

In 2016, Mr Hunt was named the inaugural Best Minister in the World by the World Government Summit for his work in developing a long-term sustainability plan for the Great Barrier Reef.

An ambitiously-named gong for which he was applauded abroad and somewhat mocked back home.

But he was nothing if not a high profile minister while in the Environment portfolio.

In July last year he was appointed Industry, Innovation and Science Minister.

And now he has been thrust into the harsh and often unforgiving world of health politics.

Inside Cabinet, he will have to prioritise the constant demands from the health sector for more funding, against a chorus of restraint from Finance and Treasury ministers.

“The key to this is to be an advocate for the profession. An advocate for health,” Mr Hunt said.

“I’m fortunate to have been in the Cabinet or shadow cabinet longer than anybody other than Julie Bishop and I’m on a par with Peter Dutton.

“That gives me the capacity to make the argument. I won’t win every argument and I certainly won’t make false promises, but I’m sure going to fight for the profession.”

 Chris Johnson



Published: 09 Feb 2017