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Wednesday, 11 November 1959

Mr COURTNAY (Darebin) . - First of all, I wish to refer to the remarks made by the honorable member for Lyne (Mr. Lucock) who suggested that members on the Opposition side were unduly critical of the medical profession. I want to say that they have not been so critical as have members on the Government side, including members of the Government itself. When it becomes necessary to impose a fee of 5s. per prescription on sick people because it has been suggested that prescriptions have been handed out in a frivolous manner, it is an attack upon the medical profession to say that this charge has had to be introduced as a deterrent against what amounts to a malpractice.

What I dislike about this bill, mainly, is the obscurity that cloaks many of its features. It is difficult to get information from the Minister for Health (Dr. Donald Cameron) when we ask questions. For example, I wanted to know whether the 5s. fee would be levied upon repeat prescriptions but I got no satisfaction. When we have tried to find out something more definite about the treatment of aged and chronically ill people and who, exactly, is entitled to the special funds benefits, this matter seems to be cloaked by obscurity.

We have been assured that there are quite a lot of things which might flow from the bill, but these, in actual fact, will be determined after this House has passed the measure. These decisions will be made later in consultation with the chemists' guild and although this has not been said, possibly with the British Medical Association.

It is claimed, and I think not incorrectly, that in many respects the bill does not improve the situation which has existed. I think that claim can be substantiated. Although the bill will make some improvement, it does not go as far as members on this side of the House think it should. Attention has been drawn to the fact that people who are, unfortunately, afflicted with mental illness will still be treated as lepers under this scheme. Nothing is to be done for them. I should have expected, in view of the modern approach to mental illness, that some steps would have been taken towards the rectification of the problem, not only as it affects these people but also their dependants.

As to the 5s. levy - it is a levy because it is a tax imposed on a section of the people who are least able to bear it - I consider it is wrong, as any sectional tax is wrong. But it is worse when it operates against those least able to bear it. One honorable member referred to the benefits which might accrue from imposing responsibility on people. I suppose that this 5s. charge would be regarded as some sort of responsibility.

I wish to mention a case in my electorate in relation to the levy of 5s. The family concerned includes a small child of three years of age who has suffered, from birth, from a digestive complaint and it is necessary for this child, every day - and probably for all of its life - to be supplied with a preparation called " Pancreatin ". This preparation can be obtained only with a medical prescription and the dosage at the present stage is such that one and a half prescriptions a week are used. Although that may sound odd, the fact is that the parents have to obtain two prescriptions each three weeks, because there is a limitation on " repeats ". So the parents will pay 7s. 6d. a week in respect of the prescriptions, but I understand that as the child develops it will require greater quantities. The parents are in poor circumstances. They have given me their permission to supply the Minister or his departmental officers with the names of the doctor and chemist and all details, if required.

There are other patients who require insulin treatment but there is a limitation on the number of times their prescriptions can be repeated. Other patients require certain preparations for thyroid gland treatment, which is a continuous process. The imposition of this 5s. fee will come very heavily upon people in these circumstances and they are the least able to bear it. That is a condition that we should not tolerate.

I have been pleased to notice, as no doubt all honorable members must have noticed, a good deal of criticism of this 5s. impost coming from members on the Government side. In the main, the criticism has not dealt with the aspect that I have raised, but, because of the pattern that is always followed, I suggest that the criticism is the result of opposition displayed by the Pharmaceutical Guild to the proposals contained in the bill. As late as 6th October, Mr. Eric Scott, federal president of the Pharmaceutical Guild, wrote to the Minister objecting to the imposition of the 5s. charge, and, in concluding his letter, said -

I may add that if our proposal is approved by you, it would materially assist me in checking the increasing opposition to the scheme which I have noticed amongst members generally throughout the Commonwealth.

So, as late as 6th October, opposition from the pharmacists was increasing. I suggest that their requirements have not been satisfied even yet. Their approach to the 5s. charge is that they had a quite understandable fear that some of their members, in order to buy public goodwill and so attract customers from other chemists, might not collect the 5s. As a matter of fact, at some branch meetings of the guild, I noted that many chemists were unhappy about the prospect of being made public tax gatherers. They felt that this was not right, ethically. Representations were made and pressure was put on the Government to make the 5s. tax, as I call it, compulsory. Whilst the manner in which the Government has overcome this difficulty may not be illegal, it amounts to compulsion because if chemists do not collect the 5s. it is just too bad for them.

Mr Bandidt - They can charge-

Mr COURTNAY - I suggest you are out of order, and I prescribe Beecham's pills; they will not cost you 5s. either.

When the chemists seek recoupment, they will be paid the cost that is allegedly properly assessed less 5s. If that does not amount to compulsion or coercion, nothing does. If they do not make the charge, they will be 5s. out on what, after all, may not be a reasonable fee for dispensing the prescription. Whether it is, I think, is a matter that they are entitled to have inquired into because, although it is suggested that they are probably all millionaires, they may not be getting what the prescription is worth. In this regard, I refer to their request that section 99 of the principal act be brought more into line with similar provisions for members of the medical profession. These provisions are similar except in one respect. The provision relating to the medical profession requires that there shall be agreement between the Minister and the profession itself. This is quite different from the treatment given to the Pharmaceutical Guild. Here, a committee of nine members, four representing chemists and four from the department, with what is virtually a departmental chairman, deals with these matters. Very rarely do chemists get away with anything, and they claim that they are not properly recompensed. They suggest that the assessment relating to them should be made in the same way as the assessment relating to the medical profession, but they have learned very recently that they are only little people and are not likely to get the same treatment as the medical profession - or, for that matter, the shipowners.

We suggest that there should be at least an independent arbitrator, and I hope that an investigation will be made. If pharmacists are being paid too much, they should be corrected; if they are not being paid enough for their labour, then, as a trade unionist, I say that they should be given the proper amount, after investigation. I have referred to the obscurity that surrounds everything. I am, however, happy that there will be some improvement in the lot of the aged and the chronically ill. But I am not happy with the fact that many propositions put forward are so vague that it is almost impossible to assess the results of them. I repeat that the imposition of a charge of 5s. will cause hardships on those families that need a continuous supply of particular drugs, perhaps for years. It is an outrageous impost on people in those circumstances, and I hope that further consideration will be given to it.

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