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Friday, 30 April 1971

Senator DEVITT (Tasmania) - I take this opportunity to direct some comment to a matter which was raised during the course of the examination of the Estimates in Estimates Committee E in relation to the Department of Repatriation. It arose out of somewhat of a shock 1 got when I saw it was necessary to provide an amount of $449,000 additional to the initial appropriation for the year for drugs. I can appreciate the explanation which the Department gave that it is terribly difficult to estimate with close accuracy what may be required from year to year because of various fluctuations. This was quite amply demonstrated to the Committee at the time, not only in this direction but in other directions. But it still seems to me to be an inordinately high figure for additional drugs particularly in this day and age when one becomes pretty much alerted to the problems of drug taking and the consequences of the ready availability of drugs and problems of this kind.

I pricked up my ears and I directed some questions to the advisers from the Department, who were very good and who gave clear explanations of these things. One must concede that ex-servicemen patients are getting older and are probably needing drugs in greater quantities than they did previously. I guess this trend will continue. With the development of new drugs and new systems of treatment for various conditions, I suppose it is reasonable to expect that doctors will try out various medications and forms of treatment on a patient until such time as the correct treatment or the correct drug is arrived at and the patient can get some relief.

Quite recently I became acquainted with the case of an ex-serviceman who had suffered for years and years from a certain condition. He had almost given up hope of getting any relief. He was in a rather desperate situation because the amount of pension which he received as compensation for his loss of ability was inadequate to cover the situation. He was in a difficult situation. But ultimately, as a consequence of some action we took - I pay a very great tribute to the officers of the Repatriation Department in Tasmania for what they did in this case, and in so many others - the person concerned was taken before a doctor, given an examination and given a form of treatment. It will not cure his problem, but it has given him relief for the first time in many years. I suppose it is reasonable that the various drugs should be tried out and ultimately it is hoped - and in this case it turned out to be so - that relief can be given to the sufferer. 1 think we ought to acknowledge that there is a serious problem in relation to increased drug taking. I raise the question here, and I point out that I am proposing to discuss the matter in greater detail with the advisers of the Department. I have informed them that I want the opportunity to raise with them this question and question of a general check on the drug taking of ex-servicemen. I want to ascertain what sort of checks are placed on the availability of drugs, how readily prescriptions are made available to ex-servicemen and matters of this kind, and generally whether some sort of curb is placed on the very ready availability of drugs to ex-service people.

Senator Marriott - Are you implying that they are available to only exservicemen?

Senator DEVITT - No, I am talking about the Repatriation Department and the general question of medication that is provided to its patients. The problem which I see is that there seems to be no check. I want to illustrate this in a moment or two by referring to a couple of very dramatic instances that came to my notice and which I believe ought to be checked and which I will take up with the Department. The problem of drug taking is one we are conscious of. Senator Marriott, who has just interjected, has had far greater experience than I have had and most members of this chamber have had in relation to that problem, its root causes and the systems that may have to be applied to meet the present situation. But I think all of us would agree that there is a too ready availability of drugs in the community. I hope that some check will be made on this. When I see a figure of $449,000 for additional drugs- the underestimation of the drug requirements of the Repatriation Department - I prick up my ears and feel that apparently this is a problem of very great dimensions. 1 believe that consideration will have to be given to this by the Government, the Department and other organisations which may be involved to see whether some sort of check can be made on the extent of drug prescription and drug taking. At the moment I am referring to ex-servicemen because the Repatriation Department is concerned, but I believe that the problem is much wider in the community at large.

In the course of an examination of these estimates by the Estimates Committee a few days ago I indicated that instances of malpractice in the system had been brought to my attention. Perhaps I could give a general outline of the sorts of things which have come to my notice and which I propose to discuss with officers of the Department because such serious matters are involved. What I have in mind amounts to a conspiracy to defraud, the Government and also to jeopardise seriously the treatment of these people through the prescription of medication for the disabilities that they have. I refer first to those ex-servicemen who unfortunately are alcoholics. It has been mentioned to me that in one of the principal cities of Australia a practice has grown up whereby a doctor in good faith - I am not criticising the doctors - will provide an exserviceman with a prescription and, because he is a member of that alcoholic group, he will then go to an unscrupulous pharmacist and trade his prescription for a sum of money. In the particular instance mentioned to me he received about half its value. Presumably the pharmacist would claim on the Repatriation Department for the total cost of the medication prescribed. At that time the ex-serviceman was given Ss so that he could indulge in his unfortunate practice.

Senator Byrne - Surely that would be a rare occurrence?

Senator DEVITT - Initially when it was brought to my attention 1 had hoped that it would be a rare occurrence, but subsequently I found that the practice was not nearly so rare as I had thought and would have expected.

Senator Marriott - The honourable senator mentioned Ss. Was this before the change to decimal currency?

Senator DEVITT - This happened a few years ago and that was the term used when the matter was mentioned to me. The prescription was probably for drugs valued at 10s and the person involved probably received 5s with which he would have bought a bottle of wine. Presumably the pharmacist would have claimed the 10s from the Repatriation Department. Another practice which has been mentioned to me and which has alarmed me greatly involved the ex-serviceman being given a prescription for drugs and finding it a simple matter to obtain from a pharmacist its value in cosmetics and other things of that kind for his wife. It is a serious matter and a serious malpractice. Perhaps by raising the matter here now I might be able to give some sort of warning to people that it is a serious matter which may have grave legal consequences for them if they persist with the practice. Not only is this a fraud on the Government and a fraud on the Department but also it must impede and retard the treatment of the person for whom the prescription has been written.

In view of the fact that prescriptions are used in this way, I wonder whether doctors are issuing prescriptions too readily. If drugs are prescribed and the doctor seriously believes, as I am sure he would, that the drugs are necessary for the treatment of a condition suffered by a person, it should not be possible for that person to trade with a pharmacist on the basis of that prescription and consequently retard the curative process for which the prescription was written in the first instance. I shall discuss this matter with the departmental officers because I think it is serious enough to warrant this course being taken. Perhaps by doing this I can give the Department an opportunity to make some check on the situation.

Sitting suspended from 1 to 2.15 p.m.

Senator DEVITT - Before the suspension of the sittings I mentioned my very deep concern for the problems which had arisen concerning practices which have grown up over relatively recent years in relation to drug taking, drug availability and the . allocation of funds from the resources of the Government to meet the costs of providing drugs to the Repatriation Department. Perhaps I should hasten here to say that my purpose in raising this matter was to endeavour to alert the community to the sort of things that are going on and to get those who have a responsibility in this direction to do something about it. During the luncheon adjournment I discussed this matter with a number of honourable senators and I was deeply disturbed to find that this practice is far more widespread than I had earlier imagined. For instance, I believe that it has been described in Sydney as a notorious racket that has been going on for years.

Let me say that the malpractices to which I have referred do in fact relate to a very small section of the pharmaceutical profession, the vast majority of whose members I regard as hard working, sincere and honourable people. My comments relate to a small number only who are principally in the capital cities and whose activities bring discredit upon their profession and are seriously prejudicial to the treatment and cure of those unfortunate members of the community for whose welfare they seem to have such scant regard. 1 pose the question: ls there any way in which the Repatriation Department can set up its own dispensaries? As I have said, these malpractices in the main take place in the cities and this is where I would imagine there would be sufficient call on the services of such a pharmacy to justify its establishment. I wonder whether such pharmacies could be established in the capital cities where they could be readily available to people who required their services. If this were done, I believe, we could minimise the problems to which I have referred. Again I ask: What checks, if any, can be made? I imagine that it would be very difficult to apply checks to ensure that those for whom drugs are subscribed actually use them and do not sell them.

I know that the allegations I am making are of a very serious nature. For a long while 1 have been concerned about them. I alluded to the problem on a previous occasion during a speech in this chamber. However, I did not follow the matter up because I have a very deep and sincere regard for the problems of these ex-service people and I would not want to do anything prejudicial or hurtful to them. But what 1 have heard has been confirmed in so many directions that I believe this practice can no longer be permitted to go on and something has to be done. It appears that the situation may be much more widespread than I had first imagined. In the circumstances I think that this matter should be closely investigated. I do not think it would be very difficult to carry out an investigation so that at least some of the mysteries surrounding the practices to which 1 have alluded can be unravelled.

At the moment this whole matter is a scandal and cannot be allowed to continue.

I suggest that this is a thorough-going racket in this country. It not only involves considerable sums of money but it also impinges on the whole question of drug taking and must bear heavily on the treatment and cure of ex-servicemen and their dependants. As I have said, one hesitates to raise this question because of a deep feeling of obligation to ex-servicemen, but one cannot remain silent while a section of the community whose actions should be beyond reproach, since its members operate largely on trust, proves unworthy of the trust and responsibility reposed in them by the system. I earnestly hope that any unhappiness 1 may cause by these revelations will be more than offset or counterbalanced by the good that may ultimately come as a result of what I have said. I warn those people who have some responsibility in this matter that so far as I am concerned it will not be tolerated. I imagine that the question having been raised here, all possible steps . will be taken to stamp out this practice and to reduce to the lowest possible level the practices which have grown up and have been regarded and referred to as notorious rackets throughout Australia.

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