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Thursday, 5 December 2013
Page: 1776


Ms CHESTERS (Bendigo) (13:15): I too rise to support the amendment that is before us. It is so critically important that the savings that are made through this proposal stay in the Health portfolio. This bill, as we have heard from previous speakers, implements a Labor announcement—a change that we put forward last August—to reduce the time for price disclosure from 18 months to 12 months. This bill therefore reduces the time between when a company advises the price reduction of a drug and when the government starts to pay the reduced amount. Knowing that pharmacies are businesses and that changing the business culture may take some time, Labor, when in government, entered into a new agreement with the Pharmacy Guild of Australia to provide extra funding to the guild to pursue specific programs, called Support Patient Services. Having been to speak to a number of our own pharmacies in Bendigo, I know they have embraced the change in the way price disclosure works and they are working actively to provide better support for their patients. They, like us, believe there is more we need to do in the area of primary care and they see they have a role to play in rebuilding their culture, not just as a supermarket to dispense drugs but in education to ensure we have better quality health care within our communities. I would like to mention UFS pharmacies, and there are five of them within the electorate. It may come as a surprise but they are a not-for-profit, membership-based organisation that delivers a wide range of pharmacy, health and optical products and services. When I met with them about this issue, they said it was critical that they were not undercut by what they called the MacDonald's of the industry—chemist supermarkets with their bright yellow signs.

As part of these reforms, $1.9 billion will be saved and that saving should stay in the health budget. The key question for the government now is: where will these savings go? In government Labor was committed to making sure that these stayed in the Health portfolio and that we got better outcomes in the Health portfolio. In my own electorate of Bendigo, Labor invested millions in health care. In the time that I have I want to give a few examples. The Bendigo and District Aboriginal Coop received $7.5 million; $2.4 million to the Heathcote Primary Care Clinic; $5 million for the Bendigo Primary Healthcare Centre, a GP Super clinic; and $6.79 million for the Kyneton Hospital project. These are just a few of the funding projects, but these involved capital works and are critical for meeting the health care needs in my electorate. Many in the House would acknowledge that in regional electorates, like mine, health care is critical. We have small towns and villages with great distances between where people live and where their health services are.

Where will the coalition deliver these new savings? It is critical that we support the amendment because those opposite do not have a good track record when it comes to investing in health. We just have to look at what previous Liberal government have done at the state and federal level. With Tony Abbott as the health minister in the Howard government, we saw bulk billing rates dip as low as 67 per cent in the Bendigo electorate and entire towns were without a bulk billing doctor. More than a billion dollars were cut from hospitals over five years. That is what happened the last time the coalition was in government. We are moving this amendment today to ensure it does not happen again. At the state level the Liberals have made savage cuts to health. They have put up a bit of a smoke screen around it, but it is there. The Bendigo hospital and the Bendigo health network have copped a massive cut of $11 million over the last two budgets. How can you tackle waiting lists? How can you meet the primary healthcare needs of a community if you cut $11 million out of the operating budget?

As a result of these cuts we have seen a loss of staff. Rather than investing in the employment of staff in areas like intensive care or emergency departments, we are seeing a reduction. There have also been cuts at the state level to the women's health services, including Women's Health Loddon Mallee. Cuts of 10 per cent are a lot for a not-for-profit organisation to lose. There have been cuts of between 20 and 30 per cent of their operating budgets to our community health services which work in partnership with their community to deliver the primary health care in areas that others do not want to touch because they are not so sexy at the moment. Included in my electorate is Bendigo Community Health, Castlemaine and District Community Health and Cobaw Health. The reason I raise these examples is to highlight the track record of the Liberal and National Parties when they get into government. Despite their constant promises before the election that there would be no cuts to health, the cuts have begun—$100 million from the Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital, the abolition of the Alcohol and Other Drugs Council of Australia and a backflip on the promise not to close any Medicare Locals.

I know within my region how critical Medicare Locals are in linking up our small towns to ensure that across the Loddon Mallee that we have a network of funding. A lot of funding is allocated from different areas for health services and it is important that services are coordinated so that we are not constantly duplicating the delivery of health services. I understand the importance of Medicare Locals to rural regions to be that link between our private clinics, our public clinics, our community health and our hospitals.

Just in case the government are not sure and do not have any ideas about how they can invest this vital funding in health care, particularly in my electorate, I have a few ideas that I would like to put out there. I mentioned earlier Castlemaine District Community Health. Castlemaine is a growing area that is in need of capital funding to co-locate all of its services. Perhaps the minister would like to fund this project. Cobaw Community Health received a grant from the previous government to co-locate with the hospital, but now it would like to bring all its services together, again delivering better outcomes in primary health care—that one-stop shop.

Another idea is to work with Bendigo Health on how to stop people ending up in the emergency room. Too often in the health debate we focus on what happens in the emergency room and not on how we stop people ending up in the emergency room. Again, I believe that pharmacies have a role to play, moving from a focus on just dispensing drugs and starting to get into the educational field. Making sure we engage with our communities and our patients on primary health care is a very important role that pharmacists can move into. That is why it is so critical that every dollar saved by price disclosure stays within the Health portfolio and within the PBS if at all possible.

We do need to ask the question: what is next? Australians need to know whether further funding cuts will be proposed by the government and where they will attack. Let us hope they will not be like their state colleagues and go directly after primary health care. We need certainty in this area and a commitment that funding will continue. I believe, as do Labor and the people in my electorate, that we need a very strong public health system that ensures that everybody receives the universal care that they deserve. Health care is central to continuing to strengthen regional communities to ensure that everybody has access to decent health care and is able to live the best life that they can. My electorate has a strong network of small hospitals, a major hospital and GP superclinics, and I would be more than happy to sit down with the minister to talk about how this funding helps them meet their primary healthcare needs.

As I said at the start, it is so important that once this bill goes through the funding stays within the Health portfolio. Labor are committed to the PBS and to ensuring that Australians get value for money, and we are committed to ensuring that every health dollar remains in the budget. I urge the new government to support our amendment and to send a loud and clear message to the community, including the people in my electorate, that they too agree that we need to keep investing in our health care and that the dollars will continue to flow.