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Friday, 3 December 1976


Mr HUNT (Gwydir) (Minister for Health) - in reply- I conclude the debate briefly by thanking honourable members for their contributions that they have made to the second reading debate. I would like to respond to several points made by each of the speakers. Firstly, in response to the honourable member for Maribyrnong (Dr Cass), I make no apology whatsoever for former Liberal-National Country Party Governments. Nor should the Opposition spokesman for Health make any apology for the failure of the former Labor Government to see that justice was done to the Pharmacy Guild. I always believe that justice must at least appear to be done in respect of the determination of services rendered on behalf of the public or on behalf of the Government.

Section 99 of the Principal Act which stood on the statute books for many years, contained a provision that made it very difficult to justify decisions that were taken in respect of determination of professional fees for the dispensing of pharmaceutical benefits. I think therein lies the argument. When a decision was made it was made by a Minister- I suppose one could say in an arbitrary sense- after a joint committee had been unable to come to an agreement. In many cases and at many times it was a very difficult exercise for officers of the Department of Health and members of the Guild. I do not think that we can derive any joy from the fact that this situation existed for as long as it did. The High Court writ was, I believe, about to be filed on 1 1 November last year- that Remembrance Daybut because of the events of 1 1 November last year the High Court writ did not proceed. Because of the events that flowed after 11 November, the High Court writ was subsequentially issued. Discussions continued and because of the success of the negotiations that took place an undertaking has been given by the Pharmacy Guild that once the legislation has been passed by both Houses, it will withdraw that High Court writ.

I take the opportunity to thank the officers of my Department for the work that they have done, work for which very often they were unfairly criticised. The officers of a department must pursue the policy of the government of the day and must live with the consequences of decisions that are taken. I think that a lot of unfair criticism was levelled over the years at the officers of the Department of Health who were acting in accordance with the law of the day and also in accordance with the policies of the governments of the day. I wish to thank them for the efforts that they made. I thank the members of the Health and Welfare Committee, particularly the honourable member for Murray (Mr Lloyd) and the honourable member for Petrie (Mr Hodges), who have been most interested in this area, for the assistance that they gave to me as the Minister and to the Department. I also thank the members of the Pharmacy Guild for keeping the negotiations going in order to resolve what has been a long standing difference which has caused unnecessary friction between successive governments and the Pharmacy Guild. Members of the Guild, of course, have been essential to the discharge of the National Health Act and also in the dispensing of drugs that are essential, in many cases, in the saving of life and in health treatment.

I pay a tribute to the great work that the chemists are doing around Australia in co-operating with the Government and the public and in working with the medical profession. This is a very important part of health care. I take the point of the honourable member for Murray that there is an important professional role for the chemists to play. It is interesting that some chemists are taking that role very seriously. One chemist in Boorowa is doing some splendid work in counselling patients about the usage of drugs. Hopefully we will see the day when more and more chemists will be able to afford in both a material sense and a time sense to play a greater part in counselling patients in the ways in which the drugs that are dispensed or prescribed for them should in fact be taken. I hope that the day is not too far away.

The honourable member for Petrie also drew attention to one of the real problems that is developing with the number of pharmacies that are going out of business in Australia at present. A great number have found it very difficult to keep going. We are aware of the fact that in some areas there are too many pharmacies. I have had several discussions with the Pharmacy Guild about this matter and we are looking at ways and means of trying to assist in rationalising the number of pharmacies in Australia. I am aware of a general feeling amongst Guild chemists that some pharmacies that have gone out of business should have been kept in business regardless of the overall cost and other pertinent factors. The Pharmacy Guild, I am sure, recognises the need to look at the rationalisation of retail pharmacies. I hope that the Joint Committee on Pharmaceutical Benefits Pricing Arrangements will look at this matter with a view to providing some advice to me, through the Chairman, on whether the

Commonwealth can assist in any approach which may be suggested in this regard.

I agree with the honourable member for Murray that some very real problems exist for pharmacies which provide an essential pharmaceutical service in remote areas of Australia. I go a little further and say that in some cases these pharmacies are almost the only primary source of health care delivery in isolated regions. A number of these pharmacies in my own area exist where no other form of health service exists. They are operating at a loss. Because of the state of their financial undertakings the pharmacies cannot be sold, nor would we like to see them sold. If the operations were to cease a very important and essential service would be removed from the community. I will be looking to the Joint Committee to advise me and the Government on what special approaches should be considered in these cases. I regard this matter as one of great urgency. I hope that I will receive a report on it so that the matter can be considered in the budgetary context for 1 977.

The problem besetting pharmacies in isolated regions throughout Australia causes very serious alarm and should be dealt with urgently. I hope that the Joint Committee will be able to turn its attention to this problem at the earliest opportunity. Without delaying the proceedings of the House, I thank the honourable members for their contributions to the debate. I hope that we can look forward to a more constructive conduct of affairs by the Joint Committee. I believe that a lot of the heat will be taken out of the issue as a result of the decisions which the Government has taken and which are embodied in this amendment to the National Health Act.

Question resolved in the affirmative.

Bill read a second time.







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