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LISA MILLAR: The Therapeutic Goods Administration has signed off on a move allowing more medical professionals to prescribe abortion pills. Until now, doctors and pharmacists have needed special certification to dispense the medication. Assistant Minister for Health and Aged Care Ged Kearney is the responsible minister for women's health and she joins us now. Good morning, thanks for coming in. What are the changes we're looking at here? What does it mean to women?
THE HON GED KEARNEY MP, ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE: Well MS Health, who is the company that supplies MS-2 Step in Australia, made an application to the TGA to change the guidelines around how it's prescribed and dispensed. We’re not keeping up with the rest of the world, so this is a very safe, very practical move that meets world or global guidelines if you like. The changes mean that more health professionals will be able to prescribe it.
At the moment, GPs have to undergo special training and special registration to be able to prescribe this drug. Which has resulted, you'll be surprised to know, in only 10% of GPs actually doing that training and registering to be able to prescribe. And the same applies for pharmacists, so only around 30% of all pharmacists around Australia can actually dispense MS-2 Step. So as you can imagine, this has created an enormous barrier for lots of women who need this treatment. And the changes mean that all GPs and there are some changes with nurse practitioners as well, will be able to prescribe MS-2 Step and all pharmacists will be able to dispense it. It's a very common-sense approach to changes that will improve access for women right around the country, particularly in rural and regional areas where we know access has been very tricky.
MILLAR: Yes, that's where my mind immediately leaps to. If you're talking about doctors who are able to - 10%, 1 in 10, what chance are you going to have that you will find someone in your particular area that is able to do it?
KEARNEY: Exactly. And we know that has really added to the cost of getting the treatment. Because you have to travel, you might have to take an extra day off work. It's really added to the stress. We know it's time limited, of course. So, there's some urgency about getting the treatment early. So we think this is a really practical good change that will help a lot of women.
It's also exciting for nurse practitioners, because the TGA have changed the definition of the health professional that can actually prescribe it. If you can't access a GP in your hometown or nearby, if you have a nurse practitioner, they can actually prescribe it. This is a good change as well. Great for nurse practitioners' scope of practice. This fits in the government's agenda of strengthening Medicare which is fantastic.
MILLAR: Talk us through, what is the process – it’s the two medications and you said timing is critical. That's why people – when women have been out in regional and rural areas, it's not like they can wait and then go.
KEARNEY: No, you need to have MS-2 Step up to 9 weeks gestation so it is time critical. It means that people need to access it early on and as quickly as possible. So increasing access will make it so much easier for women, it will take the stress out of it. Being able to get a pharmacist nearby that can dispense it will also take a lot of stress and a lot of time and a lot of cost away from the whole process.
MILLAR: And the pharmacists will have it, they'll stock it? That's another thing some of the regional areas don't actually have all of those medications at hand.
KEARNEY: I understand that's a concern. But we've been told the supply is not a problem. And we're confident that supply will be adequate and there will be enough in those regions.
MILLAR: Why is Australia behind the rest of the world on this?
KEARNEY: That's a good question. We were kind of late coming to this, you might remember that it was a very sensitive issue when it was first introduced. Not having really been involved in that time these extra guidelines were put in place at the time. It's just a good thing we're catching up now. We're really pleased for the women of Australia these changes have been made. It fits into the government's agenda of strengthening Medicare. Also working towards all health professionals working to their full scope of practice. So it's a good thing that other health professionals can work with women in this situation. It's good news.
MILLAR: While I’ve got you on the couch here, I’d like to ask you about Robodebt. Your colleague Bill Shorten last night raised the prospect of victims of Robodebt being able to sue those ministers at the time, now former ministers, who presided over this illegal scheme. Do you think they would have a case? Is that something, to sue the ministers themselves?
KEARNEY: Well, I'm not an expert in this but I did hear the minister say that the Royal Commission mentions a situation of tort malfeasance, that sounds grim and I think it is, it suits the situation. Because at the end of the day, the ones we need to worry about and the ones we need to focus on are the people who were affected by this terrible, terrible scheme. And apparently it looks the Royal Commission is leading towards that situation and the Minister did say that last night on the 7:30 report.
MILLAR: Do you think we should be able to see what's in that sealed section of the Royal Commission
KEARNEY: I know there's a lot of interest in the sealed section but I believe it's sealed for good reason. But as the Minister said, maybe in good time we'll see what's in there.
MILLAR: Ged Kearney, thanks for coming in.