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Thursday, 5 December 2013
Page: 1768


Mr CONROY (Charlton) (12:36): I rise in support of the National Health Amendment (Simplified Price Disclosure) Bill 2013 and the second reading amendment. The bill seeks to implement changes that Labor announced in August this year to reduce the price disclosure cycle within the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme from 18 months to 12 months. This means that the price the government pays for PBS listed medicines will be discounted at least six months sooner than under the current system, and this translates into projected savings of around $835 million over the next three years. This is vital if we are to have a well-funded health system, because every dollar that we can save in this area can be spent on the broader health costs. We know that health costs are increasing and they are increasing faster than other costs in the economy. That is why it is vital that we take this action.

The savings that accrue through this bill are not just limited to the government. The price at the counter for some medicines will also come down, meaning a direct savings for consumers as well. In my electorate of Charlton this is vital because there are a lot of consumers who spend a lot of money on medicine. Labor sought to implement this change to provide better value for money for all Australians by improving the efficiency and sustainability of the PBS. Seniors, people with disability and people living with acute and chronic conditions depend on the responsible management of the PBS to ensure ongoing access to essential and affordable medicines.

Labor support this bill because it makes sense. We support the second reading amendment. It makes sense to seek the best value for taxpayer investment. It makes sense because these savings that will be made will not contribute to a reduction in supply or a reduction in access or a reduction in services. It makes sense because the reduction in the amount that the government pays for a PBS listed medicine will not contribute to an increased co-payment for consumers at the counter. It makes sense because the taxpayer will simply be paying less for exactly the same outcome.

As I have said before, this bill is important because it will save money that can be reinvested in the PBS to increase the number of listed medicines. I note that the Minister for Health's second reading speech to the House on this acknowledged that the projected savings from the bill are already factored into the forward estimates for the PBS and the Repatriation Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. I commend the minister's promise that these savings 'will assist the listing of new and innovative high-cost medicines on the PBS'. Labor agrees with the Minister for Health that savings from this bill need to be reinvested in the PBS and not redirected into government coffers. I can assure the minister that Labor will be watching with interest to see exactly what he does with these savings and we will hold him to account for this commitment. Unfortunately, I do not have much faith because already this government's track record on health leaves much to be desired.

Labor, on the other hand, had a proud record in government in investing in health care. It is a legacy that we are very proud of. The Rudd-Gillard Labor government invested more in health care than any other government. Under Labor, bulk-billing rates for GP services reached historic highs and visits to GPs were 82 per cent bulk-billed. When the Prime Minister was health minister, this figure was only 67 per cent. Labor's record on health is in stark contrast to the approach of the coalition. When the Prime Minister was health minister during the Howard government, he cut $1 billion from hospital funding. Just three months into the new government, we are already seeing significant cuts to the health budget, despite the coalition repeatedly promising before the election that the health budget would not be cut.

On 22 August, the Prime Minister, when he was opposition leader, declared: 'What we intend to do is maintain existing levels of health funding.' Unfortunately, this has already been shown to be another broken promise. The coalition's shameful cuts already include: abolishing the Alcohol and Other Drugs Council, which has been providing advice to governments for nearly 50 years—the former Liberal member of parliament Dr Mal Washer, who is held in very high repute on both sides of this chamber, described this decision as 'a devastating blow', and this is despite the fact that the Prime Minister sent a letter to the council acknowledging their fine effort; abolishing the expert panel on infant formula, despite Australia's commitment to the World Health Organization code on this; and backflipping on their commitment that they will not close any Medicare Locals, despite a pledge during the election campaign that they would not go through this important program, but we are already seeing some really disturbing signs.

The chief of the Australian Healthcare and Hospitals Association, Alison Verhoeven, has said that the government's review of the Medicare Local network 'is leaving patients, families and health service staff in limbo'. This is very concerning. The GP Access After Hours service is also an important part of the healthcare system that I am quite worried about. It is part of the Hunter Medicare Local in my area and provides a really valuable contribution to health care in the Hunter region. It is absolutely shameful that these services are now under threat from the coalition.

As an aside, my mother-in-law had reason to use the GP Access After Hours service only a few days ago at Belmont Hospital, in my good friend the member for Shortland's electorate.

Ms Hall: A great hospital.

Mr CONROY: A great hospital and a great service. She made a phone call and within 15 minutes on a busy Tuesday night she was seeing a GP. These are services that are at risk if the coalition break their commitments around healthcare funding that this bill goes to. Unfortunately, the cuts that we are already seeing directly contradict the Prime Minister's pre-election commitment. This is a clear example yet again of the government saying one thing in opposition and doing exactly the opposite in government.

It should come as no surprise to people who have seen the coalition government's performance in health in other areas. They are a party that opposed Medibank when Prime Minister Whitlam introduced it. They are a party that opposed Medicare when the Hawke-Keating government reintroduced it. In fact, as recently as 1993 they took to an election the position of abolishing Medicare. We have also seen very recently state Liberal governments taking the axe to health care. For example, the O'Farrell Liberal government in New South Wales has cut almost $3 billion in health funding, decimating health services across New South Wales. This is the standard practice of the Liberal government and I am fearful as to what will happen out of the government's commission of audit.

I will comment on the O'Farrell government a bit longer. This is a government that has cut health to the bone. Even when it made commitments to fund hospitals appropriately, it failed. My wife is an anaesthetic nurse and they fought very hard to get improved patient-to-nurse ratios in their hospitals. Even when they won that through the industrial award process, the government has still been incredibly tardy in actually delivering on that commitment. I fear that this could be replicated in the federal Liberal government's approach to health care.

I would like to note that the Minister for Health has failed to guarantee that cuts will not be made to Medicare Locals, cancer centres or medical research, and it is apparent that some cuts to the PBS are now also being considered. As well as these initial cuts, it has also been revealed that hundreds of Department of Health staff have been relocated to a 'business service centre' as of 1 December while they wait for projects to be identified as priorities by the Minister for Health. This is a complete waste of resources and is of great concern.

This government's commitment to health care can also be seriously questioned on the basis that the fundamentally important areas of mental health and science no longer have dedicated ministers. I applaud the efforts of previous ministers for mental health, such as the member for Port Adelaide, who did sterling work in the last government.

In my own area of the Hunter region, health care and funding for hospitals is of vital importance. The John Hunter Hospital, which is the only trauma hospital between Sydney and Brisbane, is located in my electorate. Hunter New England Health is the largest employer in the area and Labor invested nearly $50 million in the Hunter Medical Research Institute, which is doing great work in the Hunter area—teaming up with John Hunter Hospital and the University of Newcastle. In Charlton, Labor invested $2½ million in clinical skills training at the John Hunter Hospital, as well as $2.5 million in the GP superclinic at Morisset—which, despite the campaign being run by the Minister for Health, has been open for many years and is doing great work down in the Morisset-Southlakes area. In fact I am told that the GP superclinic down there sees more patients per day than the emergency department of Wyong Hospital, which is a quite significant nearby hospital. There was also $850,000 in funding provided for primary care infrastructure for GPs.

However, there remain significant health challenges in the Hunter. A recent National Health Performance Authority report revealed that 70 per cent of adults in the Hunter region are now overweight or obese—the second highest rate in New South Wales. A recent report by the Hunter Valley Research Foundation indicates that 44 per cent of Hunter residents have a medical condition, disease, impairment or disability that has been diagnosed by a doctor or health professional and has lasted for more than six months.

So reforms to the PBS, as embodied in this bill, are very important. What is vital is that the savings which accrue from this change are reinvested in the health portfolio, because areas like the Hunter Valley desperately need additional health funding. In Charlton alone, there are nearly 8,000 people with diabetes. According to Diabetes Australia, there are an estimated 14,000 people with prediabetes and at high risk of developing type 2 diabetes in the next 5 years. The electorate of Charlton has a combination of a significant population over the age of 60 and new residential areas that will see an increase in young families. All of these areas and all of these people are vulnerable to any cuts in health funding. That is why it is vital that the savings from the measures in this bill are reinvested in health.

I am proud to be a Labor member of parliament. We are the party of Medicare, we are the party of Medicare Locals and we are the party of the PBS. I am really proud of our record in government and I am really committed, along with the rest of the Hunter team and the rest of the Labor team, to hold the government to account over the reinvestment of the savings associated with this bill. I commend the bill to the House along with the amendment we have moved. It is just so important that we keep fighting for adequate health funding.