Joanne Ryan MP
Federal Member for Lalor
Joanne Ryan MP

National Health Amendment (Pharmaceutical Benefits) Bill 2014

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this bill, the National Health Amendment (Pharmaceutical Benefits) Bill 2014, and I ask for indulgence. I am up speaking about pharmaceuticals and am probably in desperate need of some antibiotics, so I hope the House bears with me.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this bill because nothing demonstrates the differences between the Labor and Liberal parties more than our history in government on health. Nothing demonstrates it quite so clearly; nothing at all. I note the number of times I have heard the Minister for Health, Minister Dutton, on his feet wanting to talk about Labor Party history. Again today in question time, the Prime Minister was giving us some kind of history lesson from across the chamber. I say, in opening, that sometimes the temptation to twist the facts becomes irresistible to those opposite.

Recently Minister Dutton made a call for those on our side of the chamber to answer for our 'astounding hypocrisy' on health, at the same time suggesting those opposite were working steadily and methodically to reform our health sector and ensure it remains sustainable. As an English teacher, I love to play with words; and I love the notion that the changes we are seeing to our health system under this government are described by the word 'reform', when what in fact we are seeing is the absolute undermining of our universal health program in this country. That includes the changes being suggested here—this $1.3 billion tax.

In my mind when I enter the chamber these days I remind myself I am entering the 'house of irony', but what we have heard from Minister Dutton goes so far as to be farce. The theatre of the absurd is occurring in here every day. Harold Pinter could not have written some of the things we are hearing about the history of the Labor Party and health, or thought of some of the resounding uses of language to describe what is an attack on Medicare and our health system.

We have Minister Dutton making all sorts of assertions about history and yet, when we look at the history, it is quite clear where the Labor Party stands when it comes to health and people's access to our health system. We do not have to go that far to remember Whitlam introducing universal health care into this country; we do not have to go very far—certainly in my lifetime—when Prime Minister Fraser killed it off; and then of course Prime Minister Hawke reintroduced our universal health program as Medicare. To say that this party would be doing anything that goes against those credentials is absolutely outrageous.

The argument that they put forward all of the time and that I have heard over and over and over again is this link to the introduction of a co-payment for the PBS by Labor. The twisting of the facts that is occurring on the other side, of course, is one of omission. They are omitting to tell us that when Labor introduced that we also increased the pharmaceutical allowance, so concessional patients received the equivalent of the cost of a script per week to compensate them. Every time the PBS co-payment went up so did the pharmaceutical allowance. They forget to mention that Prime Minister Howard broke that nexus in 1997.

They also forget to mention that when we introduced a co-payment it was not part of a budget that began the dismantling of the universal health care system. It was not part of a budget that ripped out more than $50 billion from our hospitals. It was not part of a budget that included a GP tax. It was not part of the budget that included pension cuts that will leave pensioners more than $4,000 worse off. It was not part of the budget that included family payments cuts that would leave families $6,000 worse off. It was not part of a budget that scrapped seniors concessions, increased the cost of petrol et cetera et cetera et cetera. We can take these things one at a time and the Prime Minister can stand at the dispatch box in question time and assert these things and omit the facts that the Australian public are very well aware of and probably do not need reminding of. They omit information that Labor made targeted and responsible savings in the health sector, including the means testing of the private health insurance rebate, which was opposed by those opposite—and that we made medicines cheaper through simplified price disclosure. They omit those issues every time they get to their feet.

They also omitted to tell people that Labor made unprecedented investments in hospitals, primary care, aged care and the health workforce—all of which this government has ripped money out of in this year's budget, and all after promising no cuts to health! And why? The question is being asked in my electorate in most households: why are we hearing this day in, day out? Why would anybody want to? The answer provided by those opposite is around the notion of a budget emergency that has now been dismissed by the economists. It has been dismissed in the community, because people understand, because people have a living memory of a global financial crisis. People understand that we have a AAA credit rating. So the furphy does not stand up to any kind of test.

I stand here today to oppose the $1.3 billion tax increase on medicines because it will hurt every Australian. It will hurt people in my electorate probably more than most other electorates, given that in Lalor we access bulk-billing services more than 1.5 million times per year, greater than anywhere else across Australia. If you extrapolate that in terms of visits to the doctor, how does that work in terms of the number of people accessing medicines? If they are the bulk-billing rates in my community you need to build into that the notion that there are 10,000 pensioners in Lalor who will be hurt by this $1.3 billion tax.

The COAG Reform Council report released in June found that 8.5 per cent of people delayed or did not fill their prescriptions in 2012-13 due to cost. I do not have to go very far to see that, because I have lived that memory. In my home somebody I care deeply about has a regimen of medicines that he should be taking daily, and across the last five years I have seen him in circumstances where he has been making those choices. Because when it comes to going to the chemist and having to get $170 worth of medication that is going to last you a month, you start to pause. I have heard him say to me a million times, 'But I am feeling well and I don't know that I need it.' It is not difficult for me to extrapolate that into the homes of pensioners, into the homes of families with young children who will be hard by this budget. It is not difficult for me to imagine and know that those facts are true.

The last time a Liberal government increased tax on medicines in 2005 prescriptions for some essential medicines fell by as much as 11 per cent. So we have lived history, lived memory of what happens when we put in increases that those opposite want to put in and fail to do what Labor has always done, and that is compensate those families and those individuals for that increased cost—to put in that safety net for those who can afford it least.

If this were really about the sustainability of the health system, as we keep hearing—building this notion, this picture of Australia in crisis, our health system in crisis, which we know is a furphy, we know from the facts—the revenue would be going back into the PBS, the revenue would be going back into Medicare. That is not what is going to happen here. It is going to go into the research fund. From the moment I heard it come from this Prime Minister's mouth I had to stop and question it. How could anyone stand in this chamber and suggest that they were going to tax the sick and the vulnerable so that they could put money into research for cures somewhere down the track—which, by that time, with this government in control, Medicare would be gone, and those people who had paid for it would not be able to afford to access the cure. It is absolutely outrageous that those things can be argued in this place.

These changes are an ideological campaign to get rid of Australia's universal healthcare scheme. We know that—we can see it—and Australians know it. Worse, it is to introduce a two-tier user-pay system. On this side, we will not support Tony Abbott's unfair slug on sick Australians, because it is built on lies told before the last election.

Some of Australia's most senior doctors have already warned that the changes in Tony Abbott's budget will put Australia's health system back more than 50 years—back to the dim, dark past. I think about that. The member for Moreton mentioned a family talking to him about Kalydeco, and I have had several families in my electorate talking to me about the same, and I have been on my feet about that in this place before. What comes to mind when I talk to them and what comes to mind when I think about this government and the changes it wants to make to our health system is that Americanised two-tier system—all of the episodes of ER, of Grey's Anatomy and that compelling episode that ran for a week on prime-time television that advertised the episode. Nine times out of 10 the most compelling episodes in those medical sagas that America produces for us are the ones where the poor family without the medical insurance cannot afford the life-saving surgery.

They are the most compelling, particularly in this country, because it is not what we live and it is not what we know, and it is not a world we want to walk into. Yet this government puts on the table things that are going to create that world in this country, this country that has always stood for the fair go, this country that is built on notions of egalitarianism—to think that we have a government that wants to embrace this kind of exclusion, this kind of health program.

These price increases are coming off the back of $80 billion cuts to Australian public hospitals and schools. They come off the back of that GP $7, that 'It doesn't really matter what the cost is, it's about the outcome.' It is about the attack on our GP business model that is hidden behind that $7 co-payment, that $7 tax. It is about the destruction of our universal healthcare system. I ask myself all the time: what is going on here? I think about this research fund. I think about the fact that we are going to make all of these savings to make Medicare sustainable, to make the PBS sustainable, that we are going to collect this money but not put it back in there—we are going to put it into the research fund. Then I remember why. I remember the addition to the slogans in the campaign. I remember the Prime Minister having to be the PM for women and the signatory PPL scheme, and having to be the PM for Indigenous Australians. I do not know if he has found his signatory policy for that yet, but he has certainly found the signatory policy for the PM who finds a cure for cancer.

I wonder about a country that can be in a situation where we stand here talking about undoing our universal healthcare system and hurting the PBS system—and all for one man's vanity. I really do wonder what we have come to.

What we are not seeing from this government—consistent with its approach to governing so far, especially when it comes to health—is a government that is saying to Australians everywhere, 'You pay.' Those of us on this side of the House will stand against that, will oppose that.


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