House debates

Wednesday, 28 September 2022


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

11:48 am

Photo of Brian MitchellBrian Mitchell (Lyons, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

Before the honourable member departs, he mentioned that Labor will continue to look to the coalition for cost-of-living policies. I can't help but think perhaps he's referring to their policy to deliberately keep wages low, which is what happened under the Liberals. Perhaps that's the policy he's referring to. We won't be copying that one. Perhaps he's referring to the coalition's policy to keep power price rises secret in the days before the election. I can tell you, Deputy Speaker Goodenough, we won't be copying that policy. Perhaps he's referring to the coalition's policy to keep the Medicare rebate frozen for six years. We certainly won't be copying that. So Labor will not be copying the coalition's policies when it comes to cost of living because we know that, after nine failed years of the coalition government, the cost of living has only increased for the vast majority of Australians.

I rise to speak on the National Health Amendment (General Co-payment) Bill 2022. In both respects, Deputy Speaker Goodenough, I welcome the former speaker's contribution because he was in support of this bill, although the vast majority of the content of his speech had nothing to do with the bill before the House.

The purpose of this bill is to amend the National Health Act 1953 to reduce the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme general patient co-charge payment, commencing 1 January 2023. So in three short months time Australians will have cheaper medicine. It's the first time that the PBS co-payment has been reduced by any government in the history of the Federation.

The Albanese Labor government are delivering on the commitments that we made at the election as part of our plan for a better future for this country. We said we would make medicines cheaper and that is what we are doing. Under the bill before the House today the most that Australians will pay for medicines on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme is $30, a reduction of up to $12.50. About 19 million Australians will be eligible to save money under this great Labor reform; 3.6 million Australians with current prescriptions will save money immediately that the bill comes into effect, from 1 January 2023. That means 14 per cent of the Australian population will have an immediate benefit, immediately have their medicines cheaper, from 1 January 2023. People filling out one prescription a month could save $150 a year. People with two scripts stand to save around $300 a year. That's money back in the pockets of Australians, many of them older Australians.

This Labor reform to make medicines cheaper is one way that we seek to address the cost-of-living mess that we inherited after nine years of failed coalition government. After nine years of neglect from the former government, the costs of living are soaring and many Australians are cutting back on essentials in order to make ends meet. As I alluded to, that's nine years of deliberate wage suppression, nine years of superannuation sabotage, nine years of Medicare vandalism and nine years of childcare inertia.

We are 129 days in government and, already, we have done more to address cost-of-living pressures than the coalition did in nine years. We have backed a minimum wage rise, we are backing wage rises for aged-care workers, we are making child care cheaper, and we are allowing more seniors access to the seniors card and ensuring that age pensioners can work a few more paid hours, if they wish to, without losing their pension.

Since 2000 what Australians pay to access medicines under the PBS has doubled to $42.50 per prescription. For low-income Australians, especially those already struggling with higher rent and transport costs, it has become a choice between looking after their own health or feeding and sheltering their children. We've all seen the stories in the media that that's the choice parents confront: do they get the medicines that their doctors say they need or do they feed and shelter their kids? For the vast majority of parents, the choice on that is clear. It's a choice no parent should have to make.

The PBS co-payment for general patients has doubled since 2000. More than 900,000 Australians told researchers that they delayed buying medicine that their doctors said they needed or they didn't fill the prescription out at all because of the co-payment cost. This is unacceptable in modern Australia and this Labor government will not have it. All Australians should have access to universal, prompt and world-class medical care.

The PBS is a significant component of the Commonwealth's investment in our health system, providing significant direct assistance—$13.8 billion in the 2020-21 financial year—to make medicines more affordable. The bill before the House today seeks to further reduce the maximum cost that Australians will pay for the medicine they need.

I have said before, in this place, that access to health care in my electorate—a big, regional electorate in Tasmania—is something that keeps me awake at night. After a decade of policy neglect, regions across the country are facing a primary healthcare crisis, with an inability to retain and recruit GPs and other healthcare professionals. My electorate has few big population centres. It's a seat of small towns, where access to health care can be hours away.

For example, Interlaken, in the Central Highlands, has a rugged beauty about it, but it's an hour from the nearest pharmacy and even further from a GP. One of my constituents lives in a small shack with no mobile phone reception and only a wood heater to provide her warmth. She would have preferred to live in a town, but she couldn't afford the rent. She'd been waiting years for hip surgery, and she lived in constant agony. The only GP she could get in to see was in Hobart, a four-hour round trip. After getting her new scripts, she faces a two-hour round trip on other days to the nearest pharmacy. The bill before the House today won't fix Tasmania's appalling hospital waiting times, and it won't fix the ambulance ramping that's at crisis levels in my state and has kept my constituent on the elective surgery list for years, but it will make medicines cheaper for people like my constituent and others.

The Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme is a significant partner to Medicare. Both of them are proud Labor reforms that have transformed Australians' access to affordable, quality health care. I want to speak briefly to the minister's opening remarks in her second reading speech, where she mentioned—you learn something new every day!—it was John Curtin and Ben Chifley who fought hard to create this essential pillar of our health care system, the PBS. It took two High Court challenges; two referenda; constitutional changes; and battles with the British Medical Association, the Liberal Party—which in those days opposed it—and many others over 15 years to make the PBS what it is today: a genuinely universal system and perhaps the best medical system, pound for pound, in terms of bang for buck, that we have in the world.

I was very pleased to hear the member for Fisher remark with what sounded like genuine support for Medicare. It was a long time coming. We know that those opposite vigorously opposed Medicare for decades. Certainly, over the last nine years of their government, while they said they supported Medicare, we saw it being nibbled away at the edges. There was a bit of vandalism going around on the edges.

Under the National Health Amendment (General Co-payment) Bill 2022, a reduction to the PBS general patient co-payment by $12.50 will mean that the maximum Australians pay for PBS medicines will drop from, as I say, $42.50 down to $30. That's a 29 per cent saving—not bad. Furthermore, no patient will be worse off. Pharmacies can, if they choose, continue to offer optional discounts to general patients on prescriptions with a Commonwealth price between the new amount and the current amount.

Under the bill before the House today, medicine will be cheaper. We promised this at the election, and we are keeping our promise. The Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and Medicare are the foundation stones of Australia's public healthcare system, and it's only a Labor government that makes them stronger. Australians have a right to affordable, quality health care and should never have to face the choice of forgoing the medicine they need because of cost. I commend the bill to the House.


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