House debates

Wednesday, 28 September 2022


National Health Amendment (General Co-payment) Bill 2022; Second Reading

11:19 am

Photo of Steve GeorganasSteve Georganas (Adelaide, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I too rise to speak on the National Health Amendment (General Co-payment) Bill 2022. This is a very important bill. We know that with the cost of living going up at the moment, and interest rates, we hear many, many people, not just over this period where it's becoming even more difficult, but over a period of time people making really tough, hard decisions. One of the things that they're jeopardising is their health. We hear people who are on very, very low incomes saying things like: 'Which medication can I go without to be able to pay the rent? Which medication can I go without to pay the electricity bill?' That is very detrimental not only to them and their health but also to the nation as a whole, because when people get sicker it costs the public more and more to keep them healthy. So it's a very important bill. It's a bill that acknowledges that we are trying to make it a little bit easier for Australians who are, as I said, having to make very difficult choices about how to make their money last and what to prioritise.

Medication is an expense that people often have no choice about. They rely on medication to stay well and even to stay alive. We can look at just a few illnesses around the place which mean people are reliant on medication, like diabetes, with insulin pumps and a whole range of things. Other people rely on their blood pressure tablets or cholesterol treatment—things that have to be taken for the rest of their lives. These aren't choices that people make. It's the circumstances of their health that have put them in this situation, which gives them that added cost on the day-to-day costs of living. As I said, we know that patients have been choosing between getting the health care that they need and providing for their families. So this is a very important bill. It'll make it easier for people to afford their medications and not go without essential medication.

The bill proposes to reduce the PBS general co-payment from its current amount of $42.50 to $30, subject to annual indexation. It will also enable pharmacies to apply an optional discount to the price of some PBS medicines. This is delivering the biggest cut to the cost of medicines in the 75-year history of the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, or PBS, as the acronym is. So it's very important. It is a change that will make a difference to people's lives. We went to the last election with a commitment to decrease the general co-payment from January 1 2023, and that promise is being kept as we see this bill presented here in the parliament.

The PBS is an important scheme which ensures people can afford essential medication. In fact, I'd say it would be one of the best schemes that I've seen anywhere in the world; sometimes we have to look at the type of country that we live in, where we provide these services. But, at the same time, we have to ensure that these services are provided within a person's ability to source them, and this will assist with that. The last thing we want is people making choices whether they get their medication or they don't get their medication and they pay for some other essential service.

Patients generally pay a co-payment, as we know, towards the cost of each PBS medicine. Concession card holders pay less. Once patients have spent over a certain amount on PBS medicines, then they can qualify for the PBS Safety Net. This means that general patients will then pay a lower amount for medicines and concession card holders will receive medicines for free for the remainder of that calendar year, once they go over that threshold.

This is a much, much needed reform after almost a decade of neglect from the former government in this area. We saw co-payments for Medicare going up. It was harder to find GPs, as you would know yourself, Deputy Speaker Freelander. The eradication and eating away of our health system over the last 10 years has been detrimental to Australians and detrimental to the health of Australians, which means that added burden of cost. In some ways, the former government thought that they were saving money by making all these cuts or by not ensuring that legislation was keeping up to date, but the reality is that it ends up costing governments more through the deterioration of a person's health.

We have to look at the future in terms of the benefits that you get as a whole, not just the actual cost itself. I think health care is one of the essential needs that we, as a government, should provide to people. People should be able to access health care, whether it be medicines or whether it be a hospital bed, regardless of their credit card or income. Medicare, which was a Labor initiative, has been one of the greatest things that we have done in this country.

Look at systems around the world, Mr Deputy Speaker, where people have no choice. If they get sick, they're then burdened with poverty for the rest of their lives. They basically don't have the ability to recover their health. I remember speaking to a driver in Bali many years ago. We were talking about the health system, and I said to him, 'What happens when you get sick and need to access a hospital or a doctor if you don't have money?' His direct answer was: 'It's too bad. You will die.' That is a really sad situation to be in.

We really need to keep an eye on our health system to make sure it doesn't deteriorate and that we protect Medicare. I'm so pleased that, at election after election, there has been a commitment by the Labor side of politics to maintain Medicare, strengthen it and ensure it's available to everyone, regardless of their postcode and regardless of their credit card, because it is a right in this country. Everyone should have access to health care.

The co-payment for general patients has doubled since 2000. Since 2000, we've seen a doubling of what people have to pay for pharmaceuticals and medicines. According to the ABS, more than 900,000 Australians delayed getting or didn't get a script filled in 2019-20 due to cost. That's nearly a million people. If you think of the damage that may have been done to their health and what that ends up costing us, Mr Deputy Speaker, it far outweighs the cost of making sure people have the ability to get their medicines. Is this the type of country we want to live in—one where over a million people make a choice to delay getting script or not to get a script because they can't afford it? All Australians, as I said, should have access to universal, prompt and world-class medical care. No-one should be faced with having to make the dreadful choice between filling prescriptions for potentially life-saving medicines and providing for their families, paying the rent, paying energy bills et cetera.

As I said, the PBS is a significant component of the government's investment in our health system. It provides significant direct assistance to make medicines affordable, and affordable throughout the financial year. The co-payment makes the scheme sustainable, while the Commonwealth pays the remaining cost. Of course, many PBS medicines cost significantly more than the patient contribution. The maximum patient co-payment for the 2022 calendar year is $42.50 for general patients. Under this bill, Australians will now pay only $30. This translates to a 29 per cent, or nearly 30 per cent, saving for general medicines, and around 19 million Australians will be eligible for this saving.

People filling one script could save around $150 a year. It's not uncommon, when you hit your 50s or 60s, to be on cholesterol tablets, blood pressure tablets or perhaps diabetes medication. When you add up three or four medications, which are usually on month-by-month scripts, you could be looking at over $200 to $300 per month. That is a big burden on the budget of a family, so this is important. As I said, people filling one script could save around $150 a year, while those filling two scripts could save around $300 a year. In addition, 3.6 million Australians with current prescriptions over $30 will immediately save on medical scripts thanks to this bill.

The bill will also ensure that no patient is worse off under this change. It will permit pharmacies to continue offering optional discounts to general patients on prescriptions with a Commonwealth price between the new and current amount. The amount paid by the patient will still be counted towards the safety net, ensuring that no Australian is adversely impacted by the changes.

We are constantly amending the PBS to ensure that it conforms with new health research and advice. Every year, in fact nearly every month, we hear of new cutting-edge medicines that are added to the PBS, and access to existing medicines is expanding to new patient groups. I am very enthused when I see new drugs and medications coming out that are life-saving medications. We have seen many that have been produced and made here in Australia these last few years. That gives hope to many people that perhaps would not have that hope without those drugs. Some subsidised medicines available through the PBS can cost thousands of dollars per script, but they're supplied to patients at significantly reduced cost. I am proud to be a member of this government that is constantly putting health care at the forefront of all of our policies and at the health front of every campaign we have run in elections, especially Medicare, about the significance of Medicare, the universal access to health care.

There is no doubt that cutting the cost of medications is good for households, who are dealing with unprecedented cost-of-living pressures that we've seen over the last few months; but it's also important for the health of the nation. If we can assist people with their health and keep it from deteriorating, as is usually done through modern-day drugs and medicines, then it ends up costing the government and public purse less in the long run. When you look at easy quick fixes to cut from health budgets in the short term, what you're really doing is causing massive damage in the long term.

That is why this bill is seriously tackling the cost of these medications. For example, up to half a million patients with stomach ulcers or reflux disease will pay less for their prescriptions. Over 60,000 patients with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder will also save, as will 20,000 migraine sufferers and people with epilepsy. We're also including essential drugs in the treatment of various cancers and making them more affordable and available more people.

There is a direct correlation between the health of the population and the health of the economy in which people live, as I said earlier. We know that medicines are an essential need for people. We know that it is absolutely important that they take their medications and it's absolutely important that they don't have to be under pressure when they're buying medications. That's why this bill will ease that pressure for the majority of people so they can buy those medications, to make them affordable, to ensure they don't have to make those difficult choices. It would be a horrendous situation to be in, knowing that you need to take medication for a particular illness or disease and knowing that you cannot afford to buy that medication. I couldn't think of a worse position to be in.

I'm proud that I'm part of a government that is making medicines cheaper. That's exactly what this government is doing. This bill is a really important step. Good health is the foundation of our human capital, our society and our economy. I will always fight to ensure that Australians have access to the health care and medications that they need, as all my colleagues on this side of the House do as well.


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