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Wednesday, 2 November 2005
Page: 112

Mrs ELLIOT (5:43 PM) —I rise to speak on the Health Legislation Amendment Bill 2005 and support the amendments put forward by the shadow minister for health. In particular I want to focus on and speak about schedule 1 relating to the pharmacy location rules. We have seen so much about the Minister for Health and Ageing’s incompetence in concluding a new pharmacy agreement time and time again, but I would like to put on the record my support for community pharmacies and the great work that they do. I believe that community pharmacies should be protected and that we should not have a situation where supermarkets are able to open pharmacies. They need to be community based. People need to be able to access medicines from proper health professionals who can provide them with the appropriate and correct advice that they need for their medical concerns. Pharmacies provide such a vast range of free services to the public, including advice and consumer information. This advice helps prevent illness and avoid medicine mismanagement. Of course, this in turn saves our health system.

I think that the provision of pharmaceuticals is a particularly pertinent issue for today, because today is the day that key medical and consumer groups have joined forces to oppose the cruel and mean decision of the health minister to remove calcium supplements from the PBS for osteoporosis sufferers. In an unprecedented move, groups such as Osteoporosis Australia, the Australian and New Zealand Bone and Mineral Society, the Australian Rheumatology Association and the Australian Orthopaedic Association have come together to speak about the health minister’s callous and irresponsible decision to remove calcium from the PBS.

I would like to take a step back. During the campaign last year, when the health minister came to the electorate of Richmond, he did not say to people that he was going to be taking calcium off the PBS and that people who were suffering from osteoporosis and kidney disease would be left high and dry. When this became clear to the people of Richmond a couple of months ago, when they became aware of the health minister’s sneaky plans to take calcium off the PBS and when they realised that the medicine they so desperately need would no longer be affordable to them, there was a massive public outcry in Richmond. So many people contacted my office to ask what could be done and how we could get the health minister to change his mind on such an important issue.

In September I hosted a public meeting at Tweed Heads, where we heard first-hand from health professionals and locals how important it is to keep calcium on the PBS. We heard from kidney disease patient Melissa Moran from Bogangar, who spoke about her experience with the disease and urged the government to reconsider its decision. In a very passionate and moving speech, she addressed the forum and said:

I need at least three bottles of calcium tablets a month. If calcium goes up to $13 a bottle, I will struggle to pay for this. Couple this with the price of fuel and the cost of raising three teenage boys and two teenage stepsons; I am really not looking forward to Christmas this year.

She went on to say:

It is really important that calcium tablets remain on the PBS. I need calcium tablets to stay healthy. My children need me to stay healthy. Please don’t make it impossible for me in Australia in 2005 to lead a normal life living with end stage renal failure.

So a few days ago we saw the health minister bowing to public pressure, the advice of the PBAC and just plain commonsense which forced him to reverse his decision to remove calcium from the PBS for people suffering chronic renal failure. It was about time the health minister backflipped on this. I would really like to commend all the people in my electorate—it shows what can really be achieved by working together as a community.

But the health minister cannot just stop there: he has to go further in terms of those osteoporosis sufferers, because the experts keep telling him that calcium is vital for the treatment and prevention of osteoporosis. Up until now the health minister has refused to release the advice of the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee. Now we know why: because this committee of experts is advising the health minister to reverse the mean and cruel decision to delete calcium from the PBS for osteoporosis sufferers. And he thinks he has the right to ignore this advice, to save $6 million dollars a year. This is a government that is happy to waste $55 million on a propaganda campaign to take away Australians’ rights at work, and it is too mean and out of touch to spend $6 million to prevent osteoporosis and treat the crumbling bones of people who desperately need their calcium. We now know, despite the health minister’s secrecy, that in a special meeting of the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee the minister was advised that it was:

... concerned that these patient groups would not be optimally treated if they ceased taking calcium tablets should they become less affordable by de-listing.

At the public meeting in September that I spoke of earlier, we heard from an osteoporosis sufferer, Mrs Helen Taylor. She spoke about how, because of the debilitating nature of her condition, she already has to pay hundreds of dollars a year for special shoes just so she can walk. She helps her husband run a farm business in the Cudgen area near Tweed Heads, and she wants to keep doing that. She wants to stay healthy and independent. She says if calcium is removed from the PBS she will not be able to afford the medicine that she needs. She made it very clear: the removal of calcium from the PBS would be a significant financial burden on her and her family and this in turn would have a significant impact on her health and wellbeing. She urged me to tell her story and the stories of hundreds of other locals like her.

But if the health minister is not interested in the personal stories of everyday Australians—those at the mercy of his bad decision—will he at least listen to the advice of experts? The Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee is telling him he needs to put calcium back on the PBS. Professor Philip Sambrook, Medical Director of Osteoporosis Australia, said:

Calcium supplementation plays a critical part in the management of people with osteoporosis. People with osteoporosis should also be included in the listing. The Government’s decision to remove calcium will affect many Australians taking calcium supplements in an effort to reduce their risk of osteoporosis and fractures.

He concludes:

I believe this is a poor decision by the Health Department, especially when calcium supplements are commonly prescribed for post-menopausal women and in conjunction with osteoporosis medications, as well as for other diseases.

Another expert, Ms Judy Stenmark, CEO of Osteoporosis Australia, said:

The Government is not helping people with the disease ...

She urges the health minister to reconsider, as:

Pensioners, concession cardholders, people from lower socio-economic groups and specifically those who are on multiple medications (which is commonplace) are the main groups of people who will be disadvantaged by this short-sighted decision.

Professor Lyn March, President of the Australian Rheumatology Association, said:

The government is overlooking the important issue that calcium supplements are commonly used by people on multiple medications.

She said that the health minister’s:

... comment that paying full price for calcium supplements is relatively inexpensive is just nonsense to these people.

Didn’t the minister bother to find out that 80 per cent of people with osteoporosis earn less than $15,000 per annum? How can it be possible to think that, when you earn less than $300 a week—when every cent counts—calcium off the shelf is ‘relatively inexpensive’? How out of touch have you become, Minister?

But this decision does not just cost the ill in our community; this decision will also pose a significant cost to our health system. Osteoporosis already costs around $2 billion a year in health costs, with a heavy burden—68 per cent—on hospitals and nursing homes. There is a further $5.6 billion in indirect costs—such as lost earnings, volunteer carers, modifications and equipment—to the community, representing 1.2 per cent of GDP or approximately $400 for every Australian. The mortality rate for hip fractures in the elderly is very high—about 20 per cent in the first 12 months. Against all these staggering figures, the minister still wants to cut calcium from the PBS to save $6 million, and it just does not add up. And this is from a government that never stops telling us how financially and fiscally responsible it is!

So, Minister, again the experts are urging you to reconsider, including Professor Geoff Nicholson from the Australian and New Zealand Bone and Mineral Society. He said:

... the cost to the healthcare system of increased rates of fracture would far outweigh a short term saving to the PBS by de-listing calcium supplements.

We must all work to reduce the rate of osteoporotic fractures in the Australian community and this is a step in the wrong direction.

The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners says the removal of calcium will increase the long-term burden of osteoporosis. Osteoporosis Australia says that removing calcium supplements from the PBS will only achieve a minimal cost saving overall, while broadly affecting already disadvantaged members of the community.

Today I am again calling on the health minister to listen to the experts, to listen to the stories of the ill, and to do the right thing and put calcium back on the PBS. Minister, you have already realised that your decision to remove calcium for those with kidney disease was wrong and you have back-flipped on that decision. Now the same thing needs to be done for osteoporosis sufferers. Do it because the sick and frail will otherwise not be able to afford the medicine they need. Do it because it makes good economic sense for the sustainability of our health system. And do it because it is morally and ethically the right thing to do.

This is a major issue within my electorate, where over 20 per cent of people are aged over 65. They have many grave concerns, particularly in relation to their health care, and osteoporosis is a major concern for people within this age group. I call upon the minister to reverse his decision in relation to having calcium on the PBS for osteoporosis sufferers.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. BK Bishop)—The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this the honourable member for Lalor has moved an amendment that all words after ‘That’ be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The question now is that the words proposed to be omitted stand part of the question.