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Thursday, 2 May 1957

Mr COPE (Watson) .- The matter that I wish to raise comes within the scope of the Minister for Health (Dr. Donald Cameron). I have noticed that, unfortunately, the honorable gentleman has been absent from the Parliament for all of this week. I believe that most honorable members will agree with me that the Government should amend the pharmaceutical benefits regulations applicable to age and invalid pensioners to enable those of them who are suffering from serious ailments to receive, free of cost, drugs prescribed by doctors which are not included in the list of free drugs.

Many age and invalid pensioners are being deprived of the right to a reasonable standard of health because of this injustice. As an illustration, I quote the case of an elderly lady whose sole income is a pension of £4 a week. This lady lives by herself in George-street, Waterloo, which is in my electorate. She is suffering from a very advanced heart and nerve condition which requires permanent medical attention by her doctor. This doctor prescribed many drugs included in the list of pharmaceutical benefits, but they were unsuccessful in relieving her serious illness. So, in his wisdom, he prescribed a drug in tablet form known as equanil, which is a proprietary line. The tablets cost 27s. 6d. for a week's supply, but equanil is not included in the pharmaceutical benefits list. In reply to my representations to the Minister to supply these essential tablets free to this lady, J received a letter, from which I will quote the relevant portion. It is as follows: -

The tablets to which Mrs. Moore refers are a proprietary preparation and as such, may not, under the provisions of the pharmaceutical benefits regulations be supplied as a pensioner pharmaceutical benefit. However, the Pharmaceutical

Benefits Advisory Committee, whose recommendation is necessary before I may make any additions

That is the important part - to the list of benefits, has at present under consideration the question of inclusion in the list of general pharmaceutical benefits of this type of drug, but until I receive a recommendation that they be made available as a pharmaceutical benefit, I regret that there is nothing I can do to assist Mrs. Moore.

That, in effect, means that until such time as the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee makes a finding on whether a drug such as equanil should be included on the list, this lady - probably there are many other pensioners in similar circumstances - will be deprived of drugs which have been prescribed by a doctor. It could be that the lives of some people will be shortened by the callous and indifferent attitude of the Government shown in the pharmaceutical benefits regulations. From time to time it has been stated that some doctors are indiscreet in prescribing drugs for pensioners, but surely no one would suggest that all members of the medical profession could be placed in that category. I suggest that the act be amended to give the Minister discretionary powers to permit such prescribed drugs to be made available, free, to pensioners in extenuating circumstances.

There is one other matter which I contend should be reviewed. It, also, comes within the scope of the Minister for Health. I refer to the means test and its effect on the availability to age and invalid pensioners of pharmaceutical and medical benefits. Most honorable members will recall that late in 1955 the right honorable member for Cowper (Sir Earle Page), who was then the Minister for Health, amended the pharmaceutical benefits regulations applicable to age and invalid pensioners, with the result that persons granted age or invalid pensions from 1st November, 1955, were excluded from receiving any pharmaceutical or medical benefit if their income, including the pension, exceeded £6 a week in the case of a single person, or £12 a week in the case of a married couple. The means test is causing grave hardship to many pensioners, especially those who receive invalid pensions. Most honorable members will agree that these people have great difficulty, even if they receive a maximum of £7 10s. a week, in paying for doctors and medicine. A large number are permanent patients of doctors.

There is no doubt that this amendment was made strictly for reasons of economy. The then Minister for Health, the right honorable member for Cowper (Sir EarlePage), suggested that he was more or lessbringing the married pensioner in line with the married man on the basic wage. However, I remind honorable members that elderly people require much more medical attention than even those young people who are on the basic wage.

If the right honorable member for Cowper wished to practise economy he. should have kept that in mind when he decided to make alterations to his room in Sydney. When he resigned from the Ministry he was given a room on the eighth floor instead of the seventh. It had been, occupied by the honorable member for Evans (Mr. Osborne), who is now Minister for Air; but it was not good enough for the right honorable member for Cowper, and approximately £1,400 was spent on alterations. All the old furniture and carpets were thrown out and replaced. The right honorable member comes to Sydney only three or four times a year. This huge expenditure was absolutely unnecessary. Any honorable member, whether he be a Labour or Liberal supporter, should see that economy begins at the top and not at the level where people are battling for their very existence.

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