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Monday, 23 November 2009
Page: 8608

Senator LUDWIG (Special Minister of State and Cabinet Secretary) (8:06 PM) —It does seem that it is an arrogant and incompetent submission that is being put forward. It is clearly another political stunt that is being used as a cover for the proposed reckless behaviour that Senator Cormann is proposing in disallowing the existing MBS items for cataract surgery. Senator Cormann understands that there will be no MBS rebate for cataract surgery as a consequence of the action that is being taken. If the opposition were serious about this bill before the chamber, they would confine their amendments and debate—

Senator Cormann —This is not the disallowance motion, Minister.

Senator LUDWIG —It seems to be, Chairman, that those on the other side do not want to listen to my submission. If that is the case, they can either leave the chamber or remain quiet. It seems to me that the opportunity which I afforded them—when I listened to their rants in silence—similarly should be afforded to me. Senator Cormann, of course, does not agree with my submission.

The CHAIRMAN —Minister, if it gets too unruly, I promise you that I will bring them to order. Otherwise, I would ask you to continue.

Senator LUDWIG —Thank you. The government has fixed the mess that the Liberal Party created in the Senate three weeks ago regarding cataract procedures, by introducing new items to ensure that patients were not left with no rebate at all. The new fee for the most common cataract procedure—which typically takes between 15 to 20 minutes—is $454.35. Complex procedures will receive $975. As everyone understands, improvements in technology have made cataract procedures quicker and less expensive. This is a view shared by some of the medical profession. For example, Dr Walters was reported in the Canberra Times of 19 November as saying:

The real issue here is the sustainability of public funds—in other words, the Medicare pie. When technology catches up and makes the procedure, as in this case, easier then you move the lines in the pie so funds are available for other health services.

The government believe patients and taxpayers should share the benefits of these improvements. International fee comparisons do indicate that the fee charged for cataract surgery is much higher in Australia than in other similar countries that use the same technology.

The Minister for Health and Ageing had a discussion with the ophthalmologists late last week and we are advised that those conversations are continuing. But we do have a position here; whereas the purpose of Senator Cormann’s submission really remains opaque to the government, and even me on this side of the chamber. Why he would seek to use an important health compliance bill, to pull it off the program and use it to tack amendments such as these onto it—amendments which are unrelated to the substance of the health compliance bill—and seek to waste the time of the Senate dealing with this now when we could be dealing with the government’s agenda with the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme escapes me, quite frankly. Senator Cormann knows that this is a political stunt. He understands the ramifications of what he does. One wonders whether or not he is a stalking horse for the opposition, who do not want to deal with the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme.