House debates

Thursday, 16 August 2007

Statements by Members

Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme

9:36 am

Photo of Julie OwensJulie Owens (Parramatta, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

A few weeks ago I met with Bernie Banton, from the Asbestos Diseases Foundation of Australia, about the government’s failure to list Alimta on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme for people with mesothelioma, the most debilitating and aggressive asbestos related disease. The life expectancy of such a patient is just five months from the time of diagnosis.

Recent studies show that patients who take Alimta and Cisplatin live longer than those treated with Cisplatin alone—significantly, up to three months longer or more. Alimta not only increases life expectancy, by inhibiting tumour growth, but improves the sufferer’s quality of life in its final stages through reduced fatigue, cough pain and loss of appetite. The governments of France, Sweden and Japan subsidise the drug for sufferers in those countries and the United Kingdom National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence recently approved the use of Alimta in the treatment of mesothelioma.

In Australia, it is approved for sufferers of lung cancer caused by smoking but not for sufferers of mesothelioma caused by asbestos fibres. As the drug costs $18,000 for an 18-week course, it is out of reach for many sufferers. We are particularly aware of asbestos related disease in my electorate because the James Hardie plant in Camellia was a major employer in the region for decades. Whole families worked there, and we all know someone who is suffering.

After my meeting with Bernie Banton, I took the unusual step of writing to the federal Minister for Health and Ageing asking him to reconsider the decision not to list Alimta on the PBS for mesothelioma sufferers—unusual because in general I support arms-length decisions by medical experts but this is an unusual case caught between state and federal responsibility: health services caught up in blame shifting, cost shifting and demarcations which makes Alimta available to some people in some states, depending on how they contracted the disease, but leaves no access for others. People who contract this disease because they played on the floor as children while their father demolished a fibro wall are not covered, but, thankfully, people who were exposed to asbestos at work are covered in some states.

We in government sometimes think it makes sense to separate responsibilities. Sometimes it does, but only if the purpose of dividing responsibility between state and federal governments is to improve the effectiveness with which we address the problem, not, as in this case, if dividing responsibilities becomes a way to avoid addressing the problem, to make it someone else’s responsibility and to avoid the cost, or inadvertently leaves glaring holes and inequity for sufferers. We are talking here about health and the quality of life of people and their loved ones who have just a few months left to share.

Australia has the highest reported rate of mesothelioma in the world. All reports indicate that the rate will grow in future decades before declining. I am still waiting for a response to my letter to the Minister for Health and Ageing. I am aware that his letter to the Asbestos Disease Foundation suggested that this is a state matter, but while I am waiting I would like to remind the whole government that before the last election the Minister for Health and Ageing made a commitment to support cancer treatment for sufferers of asbestos related disease. Perhaps it was not a core promise, but for whatever reason sadly we are still waiting for the commitment to be honoured. (Time expired)