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Tuesday, 10 September 1996
Page: 3830

Mrs BAILEY —I direct my question to the Minister for Health and Family Services. Can the minister confirm that the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee has recommended the listing of the multiple sclerosis drug Betaferon on the pharmaceutical benefits scheme? What is the minister's response to the committee's recommendation? What benefits will listing the drug have for thousands of Australians afflicted with multiple sclerosis, including young women like Trish Mifsud from Wallan in my electorate, who has highlighted the problems of MS sufferers?

Dr WOOLDRIDGE —I thank the member for McEwen for her question. I would like to acknowledge the very large number of representations she has made on behalf of Mrs Mifsud and others. To be fair, representations have been made by a large number of honourable members from both sides of the House.

In Australia, high cost drugs come onto the pharmaceutical benefits scheme after approval by the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee. This is not a political process; it is an expert scientific process that relies very heavily on cost-effectiveness. The Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee has considered Betaferon on five occasions—three under the previous government and two under this government.

What has happened recently is that the drug company Schering has agreed to drop the price of the drug very substantially and has also agreed to pay the cost of monitoring and testing people on the drug to make sure it is effective. This has meant that, at the last meeting over last weekend, the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee was able to recommend to the government that it list Betaferon on the PBS.

Betaferon is a trade name for Beta Interferon, which offers some hope to people with multiple sclerosis. This is important because this illness up till now has had very little treatment—the only treatment being steroids. It reduces the number of relapses that people with multiple sclerosis have, but it has yet to be shown to actually reduce life expectancy in multiple sclerosis. The Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee has recommended that Betaferon be made available to people with remitting relapsing multiple sclerosis where there have been two documented attacks over two years and this has been proved on magnetic resonance imaging scanning.

A second authority will be given only to people who do not show progression of the illness once they have taken Betaferon and who have shown that they can comply with and tolerate therapy. Third and subsequent authorities will be given only if people have not been shown to develop antibodies or a type of resistance to the therapy. That will be on the basis of tests that the drug company will apply for.

I have to personally see the recommendation, but the cost over a full year for this narrow group of people will be about $7 million. On receiving the advice, I am very well disposed towards approving it. Normally, this would come into effect from 1 February 1997—and this has been the PBAC's recommendation. I am seeing whether there is any possible way that we could bring that forward and make it available earlier.