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Thursday, 26 March 1987
Page: 1659

Mr HODGES(10.38) —On three occasions in this chamber-namely, on 18 September and 24 September 1986 and again on 19 March last-I raised the issue of the deletion of 45 drugs from the pharmaceutical benefits list. Those deletions became effective in November 1986. I mention this because this speech should be read in conjunction with and in the light of the comments I made on those previous occasions. In those previous speeches I was critical of the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee and, in particular, I was critical of the devious way in which the Minister for Health (Dr Blewett) effected his savings of tens of millions of dollars while hiding behind the PBAC. Pensioner and concessional patients are now having to pay for commonly prescribed, yet essential, drugs for many of their conditions, such as analgesics, antihistamines and cough mixtures, et cetera.

In defence of his position, the Minister for Health commented that six out of nine members of the PBAC were nominees of the Australian Medical Association, a body which, he said, was not noted for helping the Government. The implication in that statement was that the AMA was backing the Government. Let me point out that that was not the case. I received a letter from the Secretary-General of the AMA, Dr George Repin, dated 24 November 1986, and I want to quote two paragraphs from that letter. I had phoned Dr Repin to discuss the issue with him and this response came as a result of that phone call. I quote:

Many expressions of concern about the effects of this decision were received by the Australian Medical Association and at its meeting on October 31/November 1 1986 Federal Council resolved:

that Federal Council expresses disquiet at the deletion of safe effective simple analgesics from the Pharmaceutical Benefits list with its consequent significant economic impact on old aged and invalid pensioners.

I want to offer some comments to members of the PBAC and to other individuals who are on advisory bodies and statutory authorities. The efforts of individuals on these bodies are appreciated and valuable to governments of all political persuasions. The expertise that individuals bring is essential for the better operation of government in our democratic society. However, I sound a word of caution to these people: `Some governments and some Ministers'-and I emphasise the word `some'-`will use you insofar as you are able to be used, in a less than honest way'. I say to these people: `Do not allow yourselves to be manipulated or to be tricked into being sacrificial lambs. Do not allow Ministers and governments to hide behind you because governments will always find ample opportunities to do this if you let them. Retain your absolute integrity. It is better to say ``I will not have a bar of this or that'' or resign with honour than endure the embarrassment of being compromised by a tricky Minister who has used you to take the heat off himself and his Government. In other words, to a man be your own man; your integrity is all important'.

What should members of the PBAC do? That is up to them to decide individually. If I were a member of the PBAC I would resign. The sad part of this whole saga is that individually, professionally the people on this Committee are all eminently qualified to do the job. I am deeply sorry that members of the PBAC have been tricked by the Minister for Health and certain senior officers in the Department of Health. Their reputations have been severely tarnished. They have allowed themselves to be brought into disrepute.

A previous Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee in 1979-80, faced with similar circumstances where the Government wanted to effect savings, did not allow itself to be manipulated and tricked. The then Minister, the honourable member for Gwydir (Mr Hunt), who was an excellent Health Minister, did not seek to abuse the Committee, as has Dr Blewett. I know that the Committee's embarrassment is considerable. Notwithstanding the regrets and embarrassment of the members of that Committee, I believe that to a man they should resign. There is no other honourable course open to them. Likewise, Dr Blewett should resign. He has misled the public and the Parliament on numerous occasions on this issue, stating that deletions were for health reasons.

Madam SPEAKER —Order! The honourable member will withdraw the comment that the Minister misled the House.

Mr HODGES —Madam Speaker, I withdraw. Additionally, documents I have obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show clearly that the Minister, firstly, tricked the PBAC and, secondly, deliberately set about hiding behind the PBAC. He was not prepared to be honest and straightforward and tell the Parliament and the public that the deletions were for cost cutting reasons.

Madam SPEAKER —Order! Could I point out to the honourable member for Petrie that he is very close to going across standing order 76. He must not impute improper motives to any member of this House. His time has now expired.