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Thursday, 4 April 2019
Page: 14919

Health Care

Dear Mrs Wicks

I refer to your letter of 18 February 2019 concerning Petition number PN0388, an Australian Government agency for natural therapies.

As the Minister for Health, I am aware that many Australians choose natural therapies and medicines over conventional approaches to healthcare; and that many seek improved funding of research into their effectiveness, safety and cost benefits. The Liberal National Government recognises that all medicines and therapies should be tested in well-designed clinical trials and the results should be analysed objectively. Claims of effectiveness should be based on supporting evidence, whether treatments are traditional, alternative or used in conventional medicine.

The petition asks for the creation of a new Australian Government agency, independent of the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), to distribute research funding for natural therapies, conduct reviews of natural therapies, and determine potential health and budgetary benefits of encouraging private health fund access to natural therapies and qualified practitioners.

The Government recognises NHMRC as Australia's leading expert body responsible for supporting health and medical research. NHMRC manages a grant program that funds research across the spectrum of health and medical issues. All schemes are competitive, and applications for any funding scheme are assessed through NHMRC's internationally recognised and rigorous peer review processes. This competition is key to ensuring only the most meritorious and highest quality applications receive taxpayer funding. NHMRC has provided over $66 million towards complementary medicine research since 2009.

Researchers may also wish to monitor opportunities announced under the $20 billion Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF) established by the Government, which is additional and complementary to NHMRC. Individuals and community research organisations are encouraged to register with the GrantConnect website to ensure they receive up-to-date information on new grant opportunities.

NHMRC also plays a key role in providing trustworthy advice on health practices and therapies. NHMRC uses standardised, internationally accepted methods and quality assurance processes to search for and identify evidence, and assess its quality and reliability. Importantly, the NHMRC Act 1992 requires public consultation for guidelines, giving the opportunity for the community, clinicians and policy makers to submit their views and ensure that all high quality, reliable evidence has been taken into account. NHMRC also routinely seeks expert review of its guidelines and evidence products as another type of quality assurance.

I am aware of the Ombudsman investigation into a complaint made about how the NHMRC conducted its review of Homeopathy, completed in 2015. It is my understanding, however, that this is not an investigation into any scientific research bias or misconduct. Thus I believe that the current arrangements are appropriate for the research needs of the sector, particularly given the costs and administrative burden of establishing and maintaining a new Government agency.

The petition also seeks a role for the proposed new agency in relation to private health insurance. The Department of Health previously commissioned NHMRC to review the scientific literature examining the effectiveness and, where available, the safety and cost effectiveness of a number of natural therapies. The outcomes of these reviews were provided to the Department in 2014 to inform its Review of the Australian Government Rebate on Private Health Insurance for Natural Therapies (the Review), which was overseen by its Natural Therapies Review Advisory Committee. The decision to remove some natural therapies from private health insurance cover was made following this Review.

At this point in time, I don't believe there is a need to conduct another review, but I encourage natural therapies researchers to build their body of research on the effectiveness and safety of their chosen field using the funding opportunities provided by NHMRC and MRFF.

From 1 April 2019 insurers will not be able to offer benefits for certain natural therapies as part of a complying health insurance policy. These therapies include Alexander technique, aromatherapy, Bowen therapy, Buteyko, Feldenkrais, Western herbalism, homeopathy, iridology, kinesiology, naturopathy, Pilates, reflexology, Rolfing, shiatsu, tai chi and yoga.

The natural therapies were examined in the context of their funding by private health insurance, supported by the taxpayer funded private health insurance rebate. The Review found that in most cases there was insufficient evidence to draw definite conclusions regarding the clinical effectiveness of these therapies. Following the outcome of the Review, the Government decided to no longer use taxpayers' funds to subsidise private health insurance cover for therapies that lack evidence of clinical efficacy.

These changes do not restrict providers of natural therapies from trading or stop Australian consumers from choosing to purchase natural therapies themselves.

Thank you for writing on this matter.

Yours sincerely

from the Minister for Health, Mr Hunt(Petition No. PN0388)