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Thursday, 19 March 1987
Page: 1158


Mrs DARLING(4.08) —The National Health Amendment Bill 1987 contains a number of amendments to the National Health Act which affect the pharmaceutical benefits scheme safety net and special patient contribution arrangements. These amendments in the legislation provide a safety net which enables families, in particular those with many young children, who might be running up a number of prescriptions in one year to be able to obtain their prescriptions free after the first 25 drugs have been prescribed and given to them. I am sure that honourable members will immediately recognise the common sense and necessity of these amendments and welcome them as an important part of the legislation.

The first amendment in the legislation to which I alluded may arise if, for example, a patient receives a prescription which could be valid for a period. To be eligible for the 25 scripts allowed under the safety net a chemist must dispense the maximum dosage prescribed by a doctor. This amendment is one of two which looks at the maximum drug dosage. These amendments are necessary because of a need to allow the maximum dose or the quantity of the prescribed drug to be increased and still be eligible for entry on the pharmaceutical entitlements card and also a need to allow less than the maximum dosage of dangerous or addictive drugs to be prescribed under the pharmaceutical benefits scheme and still remain eligible for the entitlements. However, the maximum dosages are liable, in certain cases, to be altered by the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Council-the authority which advises the Government on its pharmaceutical policies.

The first amendment to which I referred simply allows the repeat scripts to be eligible for the safety net because they were prescribed before the change to recommended dosages. Similarly, the latter amendment allows for patients to be prescribed dosages of dangerous and addictive drugs at less than maximum dosages. These two amendments therefore allow further flexibility in the system and minimise any possible inconvenience or difficulty in receiving the full benefit of the safety net arrangements. That is what this Government and particularly the Department of Health under the Minister for Health (Dr Blewett) are about. They are looking at putting into effect amendments which will facilitate the provision of these important benefits to the public.

I would like again to record my congratulations to pharmacists generally who have accepted with patience some administrative pile-ups and extra paper work which were necessitated by the introduction of this important safety net scheme. The amendments being discussed provide ways of alleviating and ironing out those problems, and I am sure that they will be well received by health providers. This is particularly important, as I indicated earlier, as the cost of pharmaceuticals can be a significant factor in the budget of a family with children or individual patients with an unfortunate reliance on certain prescribed medications. Any scheme which effectively offsets the impact of these costs on families is a worthy and genuine health reform and deserves endorsement by this Parliament-by members on both sides-and by the people of Australia.

I therefore feel that these changes and others in the legislation should be considered not only as an important part of the pharmaceutical benefits scheme but also as a comprehensive health policy platform which represents the only alternative control capable of ensuring adequate health cover for all Australians. I stress this because, at a time when questions of reducing our deficit are largely dominating the discussions of economic policy, a considerable element in the conservative side of the political spectrum has loudly decried not only the pharmaceutical benefits scheme but, further, the entire network of essential reform which has characterised health policy under this Government. I proudly support the intentions of this legislation and other elements of the Government's health policy, particularly Medicare, which despite the difficult economic circumstances remains the most equitable and beneficial system of health care for the Australian people.

Under Fraser, the old health scheme was a shambles. In noting the considerable success of Medicare under this Government, I point to several notable initiatives in recent health policy which exemplify the sensible policy directions of the Government and highlight the inadequacies of the alternatives provided by the Opposition. They include the establishment of the Better Health Commission; the priority given to the fight against the acquired immune deficiency syndrome; the enormous initiatives at both State and Federal level; the campaign against drug abuse, which the honourable member for Barker (Mr Porter) did nothing but pull down; the establishment of national liver and heart transplant units; a bicentennial health program, which will lead to prevention and public health care and which is responsive to the needs of the future; and the transfer of nurse education from hospitals to colleges of advanced education.

All these initiatives of reform are occurring despite the difficulties being felt in our external economy and give credence to the view that this Government remains committed to worthwhile reform, regardless of economic pressure or the efforts of self-interest groups. This can be shown by the fact that, in addition to the reforms mentioned earlier, responsive changes have been made within Medicare to ensure the maintenance of its primary objectives. I refer here to the standardisation of the schedule fee rebate which, until the sensible intervention of my colleague the Minister for Health, had discriminated against Medicare patients in my home State of Queensland for many years. I am happy to say that these inequalities have been eliminated by this Government. All Australians now receive the same refund for services from their national health care scheme.

When viewed collectively, such initiatives represent an active and progressive stance in health policy. The amendments we are debating here today are a worthwhile part of that program and will continue to contribute greatly to this Government's efforts to pursue its health policy on the basis of fairness, equity and sound economic management.