New Health Minister Greg Hunt has immediately pledged his support for Medicare and extended an olive branch to furious doctors, as the Turnbull government looks to patch up its image in the key portfolio.
Mr Hunt declared himself a health minister for GPs soon after being announced as the replacement for Sussan Ley on Wednesday, acknowledging the government’s dispute with doctors over its unpopular Medicare rebate freeze.
He pledged his support for Medicare in an attempt to heal the wounds of the 2016 election campaign.
“I have, and we have, a rock solid commitment to the future of Medicare,” he said. “It is simply indispensable.”
The son and husband of nurses, he chose to address media on Wednesday from Victoria’s Frankston Hospital, where his mother had worked and his father, veteran Victorian Liberal MP Alan Hunt, spent the final weeks of his life in 2013.
“I have been privileged all my life to know and to meet and to be taken care of by the magnificent dedicated, professionals of our Australian health system,” Mr Hunt said.
“This is a role about which I am genuinely passionate because it is about my own family, it is about everybody’s family and it is about my family’s origins.”
Mr Hunt vowed to focus on mental health, an issue that had touched his family and “is very close to my heart”.
In announcing his fourth ministry reshuffle since taking the top office seven months ago, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, praised Mr Hunt’s “policy, analytical and communication” skills.
Mr Hunt takes over the health and sport portfolios from Ms Ley, who resigned from the cabinet last week amid an ongoing expenses scandal.
“He is ideally suited to take on the very important, critically important front line portfolio of health and sport,” Mr Turnbull said.
“During his [Mr Hunt’s] time as the environment minister, he demonstrated an ability to grapple with extremely complex policy issues and engage a very diverse range of stakeholders and interest groups … He is ideally suited to take on the very important, critically important front line portfolio of health and sport.”
Other new appointments included: Arthur Sinodinos (Industry, Innovation and Science Minister), Ken Wyatt (Aged Care and Indigenous Health Minister), David Gillespie (Assistant Minister for Health), Michael Sukkar (Assistant Minister to the Treasurer) and Scott Ryan (Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Cabinet – in addition to Special Minister of State).
Mr Wyatt said he was “deeply honoured” to becomes the first indigenous person appointed to the Commonwealth ministry.
The role of cabinet secretary returns to the public service, reducing the size of cabinet by one.
Mr Turnbull said the new ministers would be sworn in by the Governor-General in Canberra on Tuesday. “This is not a large reshuffle,” he said.
Labor’s health spokeswoman Catherine King urged Mr Hunt to lift the freeze on the Medicare benefits schedule in his new role.
“Malcolm Turnbull has changed his salesperson when it comes to health, but he hasn’t changed a single one of his policies,” she said.
Greens leader Richard Di Natale criticised the appointment, saying: “Greg Hunt nearly killed the Great Barrier Reef, imagine what he’s going to do to our health.”
— Catherine King MP (@CatherineKingMP) January 17, 2017
Lobby groups lined up to request meetings with Mr Hunt within moments of his appointment, each with a lengthy list of demands.
At the top of the list was the powerful Australian Medical Association, whose president Michael Gannon had a conversation facilitated by Mr Turnbull.
“The Prime Minister passed my contact details onto Mr Hunt, we had a brief chat this morning and I’ll be seeking a more formal meeting with him in the next week or two,” Dr Gannon told AAP.
“I’ve already talked to him about the importance of unravelling the freeze on patient rebates. He indicated a willingness to look at all the issues.”
Dr Gannon believes Mr Hunt’s experience as a senior, long-serving cabinet minister will benefit the portfolio.
“That’s what I’ve called for publicly and privately, to have a minister for health who goes into the expenditure review committee, who goes into cabinet, and is a champion for the health portfolio and the health of Australians.”
The Royal Australian College of GPs is also seeking an urgent meeting to lobby the minister to end the Medicare rebate freeze, which isn’t due to be lifted until 2020.
Its president Bastian Seidel said he would ask Mr Hunt to at least consider lifting the freeze for GP visits only, at a cost of $150 million per year.
GPs were the spending solution, not the problem, he said, arguing more money in general practice would save the government money.
“Only GPs can actually rein in the excess spending that’s happening elsewhere in the system, in particular in public and private hospitals,” he told AAP.
— Australian Medicine (@amaausmed) November 11, 2016
Dr Seidel said Mr Hunt would need to revisit some of Ms Ley’s decisions, including the Health Care Homes trial, a program which changes the way doctors are paid to care for chronically ill patients to encourage better care.
The AMA and RACGP said there wasn’t enough funding on the table to make it work.
“You would have to go back, if you want to get it right,” Dr Seidel said.
Another looming issue for Mr Hunt is the complex task of reforming private health insurance, with an advisory committee due to report within weeks.
Nurses at two major public hospitals are on the war path- their union considering skeleton staff on wards in a bid to fight bed closures. pic.twitter.com/ROUDu6MtXX
— 7 News Adelaide (@7NewsAdelaide) January 17, 2017
One of his first challenges will be deciding on unpopular private health insurance premium rises, after insurers lodged their applications to impose hikes.
Mr Hunt will need to decide whether to approve higher premiums within weeks, before they come into effect on April 1.
His appointment comes as nurses voted to take industrial action at two major Adelaide hospitals this weekend, limiting numbers in emergency departments to try to have targeted bed closures scrapped.
The Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation said the bed closures were part of cuts to four wards at the Royal Adelaide and Queen Elizabeth hospitals.
– with ABC