Wednesday, 28 September 2022
National Health Amendment (General Co-payment) Bill 2022; Second Reading
It is with great pleasure that I rise to speak on the National Health Amendment (General Co-payment) Bill 2022. This bill, which is going to relieve cost-of-living pressures for so many families in my electorate of Newcastle, is welcome news indeed. It comes off the back of a very historic week in this parliament. The Australian people voted for change back on 21 May and, my goodness, has this government been delivering. This week we have seen the introduction of the anticorruption commission legislation, a matter that the former government kicked down the road year after year after year. That legislation is now before the Australian parliament. We have finally seen legislation that covers the implementation of all the legislative reforms that are required to deliver on the first Kate Jenkins review, Respect@Work. Again, the government had a lot of opportunities to act on and honour their promise to implement all 55 recommendations but they squibbed it. They were deaf to the demands of Australian women, and they were punished for it. We saw what happened at the last election.
Again, people are crying out for some relief when it comes to cost-of-living pressures, but they are also crying out for a government that genuinely cares about the health and wellbeing of the Australian people. This is a government that went to the last election saying we would consider the aspects of both access and affordability when it came to health. We have all just lived through years of a global pandemic, where we got to see, firsthand, the pressures upon our health system. People in Newcastle are extremely appreciative of the efforts from all those men and women working in our health system. But they, like so many families across Australia, are really feeling the pinch of the massive inflation that is occurring. The economic position that we've inherited from the former government is now playing out in the quality of life that families get to live. So providing relief, wherever we are able to, is a great thing.
This is a great piece of legislation that is before the Australian parliament today, where we've said, 'Instead of you paying the current maximum rate of $42.50 for every script at the pharmacy, there will now be a maximum payment of $30—and that's per script.' We've all heard reports in our electorates—and, indeed, we've heard them on a national scale—that the high cost of medicines has been forcing patients into a situation where they're beginning to make choices about their health care and providing for their families. They're weighing up those two different pressures that they're facing. There's not a single doctor in Australia who would think that this is a good place for families to be forced into—a situation where they are making decisions about how to manage their health care because of the high cost of medicines. The PBS co-payment rate for general patients has doubled since 2000. According to the ABS figures, more than 900,000 Australians delayed filling or, indeed, did not at all fill their prescription in 2019-20 due to the cost alone.
This isn't something that has snuck up on us; this is an inequity that has been baked into the system over time, while the former government had ample opportunity to act. But it has taken the election of a new Labor government in order to get some action and to deliver on demand from the Australian people that we do something. We have a quality health system—no-one disputes that—but we know it's under extreme pressure, and we are now doing everything we can, as a government, to deliver on those two questions about accessibility and affordability. This is a critical part of Labor's commitment to ensure that health care is of a high quality, accessible to people and affordable.
In my electorate, I have seen this time and time again. The chances of you finding a bulk-billing doctor in Newcastle now are nearly Buckley's. That is a radical shift that has occurred over time, and it has everything to do with the very long pursuit of freezing Medicare rebates. There are lots of complex reasons why this is occurring. We are seeing a shift from people getting quality primary health care from their GPs—which is, absolutely, where we want people to reach out and get their health care from—to emergency departments in our hospitals, because of affordability issues.
Tertiary health is the most expensive way to deliver health care in this country. The idea of putting unnecessary pressure on our emergency departments, and the cost is quadruple what it is to deliver through the primary health system—if you don't need to be in hospital let's not encourage people to be there. Let's not force people to be there because of other inequities that have been baked into the health system along the way. We're going to do everything we can to make remedies to those inequities in the system.
This bill before the House will amend the National Health Act and, therefore, reduce the maximum general patient co-payment under the PBS from that current maximum level of $42.50 per script to just $30. That's a deduction of $12.50 and represents a saving of 29 per cent for consumers on each and every script, and that is a great thing. That is very good news for Novocastrians and families where I come from. Nineteen million Australians will be eligible for savings under this bill. Nineteen million Australians are going to get some relief because of good laws being made by this Albanese Labor government. And we should celebrate that.
We should be celebrating but also doubling down on our efforts to keep up the great reform work that we have planned, the reform work that we took to the Australian people and received a mandate for. So 19 million Australians will be eligible for savings under this bill, and that's going to present a total savings for consumers, it's been calculated, of almost $200 million per year. These are big figures. No longer are patients going to have to make choices about whether they can afford particular prescriptions in order to help prevent stroke in their lives.
Where I come from we have an extremely high prevalence of asthma, and so many of those medications will be made affordable, will be life changing. We know the difference between people who take their medications as prescribed by a doctor—there's a reason why a doctor says you should take it this frequently and in this manner. But if there are financial barriers and obstacles in front of people, then they are making those difficult choices themselves: 'I can't take it that frequently; when should I take it? Do I fill it?' For most doctors, that is a nightmare. That is not following a care plan that has been delivered by their trusted GP.
Making sure that these drugs are within reach for people with chronic health issues, like asthma, diabetes or stroke prevention, is a really worthwhile investment in trying to keep people healthy. This is what we've learnt about the health system. If you invest at the front end of our primary healthcare system, and you are making the investment in ensuring that people can access a GP and take the prescribed medicines, it's keeping them out of health options that are not good for their health and wellbeing, down the track, but also they're super, super expensive.
We are adding important medicines to the PBS each and every week. That is the job of government. As we learn about improvements in medicines, if they stack up—and it is the job of the manufacturers to ensure that they have run their clinical trials and they have a good argument about the cost-benefit of these drugs—then they are listed on the PBS. This is a terrific system. It is a great Labor initiative. It is a scheme that you would want to see continue to grow and serve the Australian people for generations and generations to come.
Having watched the dramatic increase of PBS co-payments over the last couple of decades, I know this legislation couldn't be more timely. It is vital that this legislation be passed. And I am very pleased to hear that members opposite have seen their way clear to support this bill. It is good policy. It is good public health policy. And it is deserving of support from all quarters of this parliament, because, right now, Australians are paying the price for a decade of missed opportunity and drift in health. This bill will make a real difference to their household budgets for millions and millions of Australian people.
So this is a sign of the Albanese Labor government taking action. As I said, it has been a massive week, where our government has been getting on with the business of governing. We don't have a day to waste. We've got an agenda that is full. We are ensuring that we honour those commitments each and every day in this parliament. We don't have time to waste. All of us have commitments that we are adamant about delivering, both in our electorates and for the national agenda. And this is a very important contribution towards ensuring an improved healthcare system for all of those Australians.
The pandemic gave us insights into how marvellous our healthcare system is in Australia but also the pressure points within that system. We are a Labor government. We are the party that built Medicare. We are the party that has always stood up to defend Medicare, whenever it has been under attack from conservative governments over the decades. We are a party that understands the importance of universal health care. It is a fundamental principle for each and every one of us on this side of the House.
I see Dr Mike Freelander, the member for Macarthur, joining us—a man who was inspired to do medicine because of his passion for our universal healthcare system in Australia. We need people like him in health care. We need them in the parliament as well, and I'm very pleased he's here.
You can always depend on a Labor government to deliver better health outcomes for the Australian people. We will always look to ensure both equity of access and affordability for each and every Australian, because health care matters and we will be here to defend Medicare, universal health and the PBS each and every day in this parliament.