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Thursday, 18 November 1976
Page: 2873

Mr HUNT (Gwydir) (Minister for Health) - I move:

That the Bill be now read a second time.

The purpose of this Bill is to give effect to a decision of the Government which will remove from the political arena the important question of the fees to be paid to pharmacists for the supply of pharmaceutical benefits to members of the public. This Bill will bring to an end the acrimony that has developed over the years between the pharmacists and successive Governments. This will be to the lasting advantage of the smooth administration of the pharmaceutical benefits scheme. The Bill will achieve this by providing for the establishment, as a separate entity, of the Joint Committee on Pharmaceutical Benefits Pricing Arrangements. It provides that the Chairman may determine the manner in which the Commonwealth price to pharmaceutical benefits is to be ascertained and that his determinations shall have the force of law. In essence, this means that the Chairman will have the ultimate responsibility for deciding what remuneration will be paid to pharmaceutical chemists in respect of the pharmaceutical benefits supplied to the public through them and that his determinations will be binding on both the Government and the Pharmacy Guild.

Under the National Health Act as it now stands the Minister shall make such determinations after consultation with the Pharmacy Guild of Australia. Since 1964, consultation has usually been through the medium of the Joint Committee which the then Minister for Health established administratively for the purpose. Although the Minister for Health receives the advice of the Joint Committee he has not been bound to accept it and this has in recent times led to disputes with the Pharmacy Guild. After lengthy negotiations with the Guild, the Government has agreed that, because of the importance of the pharmaceutical benefits scheme to Australians generally decisions on the remuneration of pharmacists in respect of that scheme should be made by an independent authority.

The Joint Committee to be formally established by this Bill will consist of a Chairman who shall be a Deputy President of the Australian Conciliation and Arbitration Commission and 8 other members. Four members shall be nominated by the Pharmacy Guild of Australia and the other 4 shall be officers of the Public Service. The Chairman will be empowered to make his determinations after the Committee has had an opportunity to consider the matter. He will be bound to make his determination in accordance with the Committee's recommendations if the Committee is unanimous. If the members disagree, he may inform himself in such manner as he thinks fit, and then finally determine the matter. The power to determine the conditions subject to which the payments will be made by the Commonwealth will remain vested in the Minister. These conditions relating to the supply of pharmaceutical benefits are, in the main, routine administrative procedures which are best handled this way. The Minister will, however, be empowered to request a report on the matter from the Chairman of the Committee if he so wishes.

The Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme has over the years proved of inestimable value to all Australians and the Government is determined to ensure that it continues in a viable form. Determination of chemists' remuneration is an important factor in the continued viability of the Scheme. An independent authority to determine these aspects should ensure greater co-operation, and, through that, an improved Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme can result. I commend the Bill to the House.

Debate (on motion by Dr Cass) adjourned.

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