Senate debates

Wednesday, 5 March 2014


National Health Amendment (Simplified Price Disclosure) Bill 2013; Second Reading

9:38 am

Photo of Richard Di NataleRichard Di Natale (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to support this bill. Price disclosure is a very important and effective mechanism in ensuring that the cost of pharmaceuticals on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme is kept affordable, both for individuals who access those drugs and for the health budget. It is a sensible measure and it is an important measure. Reducing the threshold from 18 months to 12 months makes perfect sense—in fact, some people would argue that there is no good reason that threshold could not be lowered even further. This is a very important step in ensuring that continued sustainability of the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. It is going to save $835 million and what that money does is to give people access to new drugs, to drugs that would not otherwise be listed and to new services that otherwise would be unavailable. The Greens certainly support this reform.

The bill does arrive at a time when we are having a fierce debate about the future of Australia's health system. We heard talk in the lead-up to the election of a budget emergency, and we saw the establishment of the Commission of Audit who were charged with looking for inefficient spending and for savings that could be made to the bottom line of the budget. The Greens have had concerns about the Commission of Audit inquiry, and that is why we moved to have a Senate probe into the work of the commission. What we have learnt through that process is that 'everything is on the table', in the words of the commissioner. We have been told that health is one area where savings must be made. We have had the proposal of a co-payment to access GP services mooted. We heard the Minister for Health invite an open and public debate on that issue. We heard from the AMA that $400 million has been withdrawn from the nation's public hospital system. We have seen defunding of the Alcohol and Other Drugs Council on the premise that its role is being duplicated by other agencies. We now know that, in fact, many of the functions of that council were stand-alone and have now been lost.

We saw the dismantling of the star rating website on foods. This has been part of a worrying trend of secrecy in this government. One of the concerns is not just that the process for the dismantling of that website was secretive—and there still remain some serious questions about that—but the very act of denying individuals, consumers, ordinary citizens access to information about the food they eat is, at its heart, a very secretive policy position. Surely there is nothing wrong with open, transparent and honest government, in the words of the Prime Minister. That should also apply to ensuring that people have open and honest information about the foods they eat.

We have seen all of those things in the context of a debate in which it has been said that we cannot continue to have the health system that we currently enjoy, that health spending is unsustainable and out of control and that we need to make deep cuts to health. I think that proposition needs to be examined. Firstly, we spend as a proportion of our GDP about nine per cent on health care. That compares very favourably with other nations that have similar levels of economic development. In fact, when we look at the United States' health system, we see a country spending twice what we spend and yet which has much poorer health outcomes and a much less fair health system.

Health spending is projected to increase by a per cent or so over the next decade—from nine per cent to 10 per cent of GDP. But if economic growth is not to serve the health of its citizens then why on earth do we strive for it? The whole point of an economy that is strong and delivers economic growth, surely, should be to ensure that we are able to carry out what is really one of the primary responsibilities of government—that is, delivering good health care to all of its citizens.

Our health system does very well on that front. It is efficient. Most of the increase in spending is because we have new, exciting, life-saving health technologies. That is hardly a crisis. In fact, it is the precise opposite. Most countries around the world strive to have the challenges that we have in health—that is, to fund new technology that will deliver people longer lives, better quality lives and healthier lives. That is not a crisis; that is a wonderful opportunity, and we should be doing everything we can to meet that challenge.

Of course we can look for savings in health, but first let's look elsewhere. We hear about the government's statement that we are now at the end of the era of entitlement—


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