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Thursday, 21 March 1985
Page: 737

Mr ROCHER(10.32) —Anyone who has been in business knows that government bodies are often notoriously slow in paying their bills. Cash flow is a concept entirely foreign to much of the public sector and bureaucratic procedures often make it almost impossible for an account to be settled within a couple of months, never mind 30 days. A continuing example of slow payment by government concerns the payment of pharmaceutical benefits to dispensing chemists.

Mr Slipper —Physiotherapists, too.

Mr ROCHER —Perhaps physiotherapists too; but I will confine my remarks this evening to chemists. At the beginning of this year the Pharmacy Guild of Australia estimated that delays in final payments ranged from 22 days in South Australia to 62 days in Victoria and my State of Western Australia.

The system is that at the beginning of each month each pharmacy puts in claims to the Department of Health and the Department of Veterans' Affairs for benefits for national health scheme and repatriation prescriptions filled during the preceding month. The claims are then meant to be processed and paid within 30 days, so that the benefit money gets to the chemists before their wholesalers' bills fall due. When the system works-it has not worked very well to date-the benefit cheques arrive just in time, so long as the claims were correct and were lodged promptly and in the bureaucratic form. Unfortunately, the system is no longer working except perhaps-and I repeat 'perhaps'-in South Australia. In all other States benefit claims take longer than 30 days to be processed and paid.

Dr Charlesworth —But they have a new scheme.

Mr ROCHER —Pharmpay, and that is what I am talking about. There is a new scheme called Pharmpay which I will refer to in a moment. In all other States these benefit claims take longer than 30 days to be processed and paid, despite the assurances of this Government and the Minister for Health (Dr Blewett). Benefits for patients are paid to chemists. They are not benefits for the chemists; they are benefits for the patients which the chemist handles. Delayed payments mean that chemists have to pay their wholesalers' bills before receiving the benefit cheques. In one pharmacy in my electorate the monthly benefit payments for NHS and repatriation prescriptions amount to $11,000. Late payment means that wholesalers' bills-which take up nearly all of the $11,000-must be paid out of cash reserves or, more likely, overdraft until the cheques arrive. The effect, of course, is a compulsory interest-free loan to this Government.

Mr Andrew —What support is that for small business?

Mr ROCHER —That is the lot of small business under this Government. It makes running a pharmacy much more difficult and costly than it need be. This situation is not new. I intended to speak on the subject some six months ago, but it then seemed that remedial action was imminent. Well, I was much mistaken. The Government acknowledged the problem caused by slow payments and instituted 'temporary arrangements' to alleviate it. Under these new arrangements, about which the honourable member for Perth (Dr Charlesworth) interjected earlier-he has now left the chamber-pharmacists are now sent two cheques in respect of each claim. The first one, which arrives reasonably promptly, I am told, is for 90 per cent of the average prescription value for the State in which the payment is made. But there is a second cheque-this was the bureaucratic answer-for the balance of the claim, and it arrives after an even greater delay than before.

Dr Charlesworth —Mr Speaker, I take a point of order. I have not left the chamber.

Mr SPEAKER —Order! There is no point of order.

Mr ROCHER —He is not usually in the chamber. This action was to make the cash flow situation of pharmacists a great deal easier, so I decided not to raise the subject in the House at that time. Months later, however, the temporary systems continue, with even longer delays in the final payments. It is long past the time for the Minister for Health and the Minister for Finance (Senator Walsh) to arrange for the Commonwealth to keep its word and pay its debts on time. As the Pharmacy Guild puts it, there is nothing in Labor policy or in the prices and incomes accord about paying people 90 per cent of the average now and the balance at some indefinite future date.

Mr SPEAKER —Order! The honourable member's time has expired.