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Wednesday, 13 November 2002
Page: 6227


Senator CARR (2:44 PM) —My question without notice is to the Minister for Health and Ageing, Senator Patterson. Bearing in mind that tomorrow is World Diabetes Day, can the minister confirm that last year the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee approved two new drugs for the treatment of diabetes—Avandia in March and Actos in September? Has the government taken a decision on listing these drugs under the PBS? If not, what is the reason for the delay? Can the minister also confirm that she has had representations concerning the lack of transparency surrounding the process of listing under the PBS and, further, that the time frames for decision making are impacting on international business confidence in Australia as a location for R&D investment?


Senator PATTERSON (Minister for Health and Ageing) —This gives me an opportunity to talk about the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and the process. The Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme is one of the best systems in world. It enables all Australians to have medications at a subsidised rate. That is something that people do not understand. People who pay the general rate do not often realise that the most commonly prescribed medication on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme costs $80 per person per month. The cost of the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme went from $1 billion in 1990 to $4.8 billion last financial year. What we have to do is ensure that we manage the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme in a number of ways. One of them is to get the best price we can for a medication. The Productivity Commission found in a survey of prices for medications around the world that we get the best prices because we drive our prices. Of course we always have to realise that there is a fine balance between the profits that the companies have to make and our protecting taxpayers' funds. What happens is that the pharmaceutical companies make an application to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee to put a medication onto the PBS. The PBAC then makes a decision as to whether it is cost effective—whether it is efficacious.


Senator Faulkner —That's all very well and good, but when are you going to answer the question?


Senator PATTERSON (Minister for Health and Ageing) —Senator Faulkner is sitting there shouting, `When will you get to the answer?' Yes, I will get to the answer, but I am going to tell people about the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme in the process. There are some other medicines— Avandia, Singulair and Spiriva—on which there have been delays in finalising pricing agreements between the department and the manufacturers. Important as they are, I believe it is legitimate that the government does what it must to make potentially life-saving medicines, such as Gleevec, available on the PBS as soon as possible.

As I said, negotiating pricing arrangements is often a very difficult task, as manufacturers will naturally always seek pricing arrangements in their best interests but not necessarily always in the best interests of the taxpayer. I categorically reject any suggestion that the government is delaying the listing of the new medicines. The new PBS schedule effective from 1 November 2002 includes three new listings: Xigris, Movicol and Valcyte. One of them is for treating sepsis, one is a laxative for cancer patients and the other is for treating HIV-AIDS patients. Xigris is a new drug which may be used in the treatment of potentially fatal complications of meningococcal disease. It is an important addition to the treatment options for this devastating disease.

Clearly, any suggestion that the government is delaying the listing of new PBS medicines is false. However, I caution the Senate against thinking that, without support for the government's budget measures, the PBS can carry on growing at an unsustainable rate. It cannot. It cannot grow as it has from $1 billion in 1990 to $4.8 billion last year. Let me remind honourable senators that when Labor were in government there was a medication recommended by the PBAC—I cannot remember the name of the drug, but I have mentioned it once before in the chamber and I am sure it begins with `r'—for which the Labor Party could not get agreement on what they thought was a reasonable price, and it was never listed. They can sit over there and talk about delays. We are not delaying, but we are determined to ensure that we get an appropriate price that means that the taxpayers' money is well spent and that we are able to have a sustainable Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.


Senator CARR —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Minister, can you confirm that, contrary to what you have just said, a pricing agreement was reached in January this year? It has been 19 months since the PBAC authorised these drugs. Can you also confirm that you have yet to even take a submission to cabinet on this matter? Can you also confirm that there is no new money involved in the cost of this drug—that the money that would otherwise be spent would be provided by savings through patients who are being forced to undertake insulin treatment? Can you further confirm that over 1,000 extra patients have been obliged to undertake transfer to insulin therapy during the period of your delay in processing this matter?


Senator PATTERSON (Minister for Health and Ageing) —Senator Carr gets up with this sort of feigned aggravation. Let me just say—


Senator Carr —Don't mislead the Senate!


Senator PATTERSON —I think that Senator Carr ought to withdraw that because it is impugning me, but I suppose I would not put anything past him. We are not delaying any medication going onto the PBS. Gleevec, for example, a medication that cost $50,000 per person per year, was listed and I did attempt to have that fast tracked because of the life-saving nature of that medication, but we have not delayed medications going onto the PBS. As I said, we negotiate price agreements that are in the best interests of the Australian taxpayer. (Time expired)