Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard    View Or Save XMLView/Save XML

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Tuesday, 10 December 2002
Page: 7586


Senator HUTCHINS (5:13 PM) —I rise to speak on the Medical Indemnity Bill 2002 and related bills. There is no doubt that the crisis in medical indemnity insurance has had a serious impact upon the provision of medical services throughout Australia. Doctors around the country either have chosen early retirement to avoid the prohibitive increase in medical indemnity insurance premiums or have increased the fees they charge patients to cover the inflated premiums. The effect of medical indemnity insurance increases has had an impact on patients and doctors around the country. Capping medical indemnity insurance premiums is essential to the future of our health system. However, there are cases where individuals have been infected with serious illnesses as a result of their medical treatment. It has been estimated that there are thousands of Australians who have been infected with hepatitis C as a result of blood transfusions using donated blood. There are a number of cases where individuals have been infected with hepatitis C at the very time they were being treated for another ailment.

Screening of donated blood in Australia was introduced in 1990. According to the Australian National Council on AIDS, Hepatitis C and Related Diseases, between five and 10 per cent of hepatitis C cases in Australia were as a result of a blood transfusion before the introduction of screening of blood for hepatitis C. The Red Cross estimates that, since the introduction of standard hepatitis C testing, the chance of being infected with the disease as a result of receiving a blood transfusion is approximately one in a million. The odds of being infected are extremely low, but for those who are unfortunate enough to be that one person in a million, the reality is a life which is seriously hampered by what is an insidious and infectious disease. Hepatitis C, in its more serious cases, can lead to chronic liver disease.

This issue was raised in question time yesterday by Senator Harradine. Currently there is an inquiry into why patients contracted hepatitis C through blood transfusions. This inquiry was commissioned by Senator Patterson in August and is being conducted by Professor Bruce Barraclough, the Chairman of the Australian Council for Safety and Quality in Health Care. The Australian Labor Party supports the inquiry and hopes that it can bring resolution to what is an issue which has diminished the quality of life of thousands of Australians. It is expected that the inquiry will report in the new year. Blood supplies in Australia are almost always at inadequate levels, and any concerns regarding the quality of donated blood can only serve to undermine the public's faith in blood supplies in the country.

One of the most concerning elements of the `tainted blood' issue is that only some of the victims of tainted blood transfusions have been compensated for their pain and suffering. The Sunday program interviewed a number of patients who have been compensated but also spoke to a number of patients who feel betrayed by the organisation which provided them with the blood. These people should be adequately compensated for the financial and emotional effects of sustaining an illness as serious as hepatitis C.

Recently, Canadian police filed charges against a blood supplier and a pharmaceutical company for criminal negligence causing bodily harm for their part in the transmission of HIV and hepatitis C during blood transfusions. In total, 1,200 people were infected with HIV and thousands were infected with hepatitis C. While I doubt the value of suing organisations which provide a valuable service to the community, the manner in which countries such as Canada are dealing with this issue demonstrates the gravity of the situation. As yet, very few Australians have tested their cases in the courts.

We should not forget the objective of any type of insurance when considering these bills, which is to provide people with adequate compensation for any suffering they endure. While medical indemnity insurance must be brought into line so that our health system remains accessible, we must keep in mind the people who have suffered serious consequences as a result of their medical procedures. The medical indemnity insurance crisis is one which must be dealt with as quickly as possible. The integrity of our health care system must be dealt with swiftly and effectively. The bills we are debating are long overdue.