14 October 2019






I think the Member for Ryan mustn't be very proud of this policy, because he spent most of his time talking about Labor six years ago. But Labor is going to support this National Health Amendment (Safety Net Thresholds) Bill, as the previous speakers from this side have said, because it will reduce the PBS safety net threshold as of 1 January 2020. Labor did match this commitment during the election campaign. On matters of health and medications, I think it's important that we recognise good ideas and what's in the best interests of all Australians.

But, while we support the bill, there are a couple of points that I'd like to make. This bill, as much as it does and as much support as it has on both sides here, won't do much at all, quite frankly, to fix the affordability of medicines and the crisis that we've seen in the affordability of medicines under this government's watch, which, I might add, just to remind the Member for Ryan, has been six years. To illustrate that point, I would like to relate a case to the Chamber. In this case, I was doing a regular 'Meet your Member' at one of the local shopping centres on a Saturday morning. There was an elderly lady named Sue who waited very patiently to see me. When I finally got the time to see her, I sat down with her and I asked, 'How can I help you?' She started telling me about how she has suffered from chronic pain for the last decade. She was so emotional, so overcome with emotion, as she was talking to me that she broke down in tears. So I held her and I calmed her down and I said, 'That's okay; that's okay.'

The issue that she wanted to raise with me was the cost of her medications. She had tried so many different medications but the one medication that gave her relief was Panadol Osteo and, in 2016, this government saw fit to delist Panadol Osteo from the PBS. Since that time, this woman who suffers so immensely from chronic pain and who has tried everything that she possibly can to manage her pain has had to find the money to buy the level of Panadol Osteo that she needs. She's at a point where she simply can't afford it. She simply cannot afford to purchase the medication that she needs to give her the slightest bit of relief of her pain. That's what brought her to tears.

Osteoarthritis affects around 60 per cent of people over the age of 65, and people like Sue rely on good pain management to enjoy a quality of life that many people—and I'm sure most of us here—take for granted. That old saying that you never miss your health until it's gone rings really true. For her not to be able to afford the medication that she needs to give her that little bit of relief and to give her that quality of life that, as I said, we take for granted, I think, is a really sad state of affairs.

By the government's own figures, many Australians don't fill prescriptions because they can't afford them. Panadol Osteo, of course, is an over-the-counter drug, but we're looking at the number of Australians who can't even afford their prescription medicine. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 961,000 people a year delay or avoid taking prescribed medicines due to the cost of those medicines. The rate of people skipping prescriptions is twice as high in the most disadvantaged areas. Five per cent of people skip their prescriptions in some of the least disadvantaged areas. In the most disadvantaged areas, it's around 10 per cent of people. What does that mean? It means that the cost of medication is prohibiting people from filling out their prescriptions and from getting the medications that they need for their health, for their wellbeing and for their quality of life is contributing to health inequality in Australia.

There's no other way to describe this other than as a crisis. This government is now in its third term, and rather than really look at this crisis for what it is—when you cannot afford medication, when you're choosing between food and medicine or between paying the rent and getting pain relief—in 2014, this government proposed to increase the cost of PBS medicines by up to $5, even for pensioners. My mum's a pensioner, and I know how much medication she has to take just to enjoy a quality of life that we take for granted, to be able to get some sleep, to be able to walk without pain and to be able to look after herself and live independently as she is so vehemently insisting on doing. I know how much it costs her just to be able to afford her medications, even though she is on a pension and even though she has a concession card. Increasing the cost of medicines by $5, even for pensioners, and increasing the thresholds for the PBS safety net would have forced patients to pay $1.3 billion more for medicines over four years. It would have caused even more Australians—people like my mum—to skip their essential medicines.

It was only Labor's opposition in Parliament that stopped this government from implementing that measure. It was only Labor that kept this government in line and opposed this measure that would have seen PBS medicines increase by up to $5, including for pensioners, and see an increase in the thresholds of the PBS safety net. It was only Labor that stopped this government from doing this. Australians shouldn't forget that this Prime Minister and the current minister are part of that cabinet that wanted to make medicines more expensive for all Australians.

Last month, the PBAC made its recommendations public from the July meeting. That took the number of drugs waiting to be listed by Minister Hunt, the current Minister for Health, to more than 60. So there are more than 60 drugs at the moment waiting to be listed on the PBS. One of those drugs is Symdeko. Many members of parliament will know that I meet quite frequently with children suffering from cystic fibrosis and that I'm an advocate and a huge supporter of the cystic fibrosis cause. Symdeko is a life-changing cystic fibrosis drug. It treats the most common cystic fibrosis mutations and can extend life expectancy and improve quality of life for sufferers of cystic fibrosis, many of them children.

The Minister made a promise to all of those with cystic fibrosis—to the children and to their parents—that they would have access to Symdeko on the PBS as soon as it was approved. It was approved six months ago. Six months may not seem long in our lifetime. I'm like anybody else who comes to October and November: we think, 'Where did the year go?' We say it every year: 'This year went so quickly. Where did the year go? Where did the week go?' Six months doesn't seem like that long at all, but I'll tell you: six months in the life of a child with cystic fibrosis is everything. To the parents of that child, six months is everything. To people who suffer with chronic pain, six months is everything. To people with life-threatening illnesses, six months is everything. It's just not good enough when this minister tells children suffering from cystic fibrosis and their parents that once Symdeko is approved they'll have immediate access to it and yet six months later they're still waiting.

Before I finish, I note that I have spoken before about continuous glucose monitors and I note that the government has made them available. However, I will raise this issue once more: once young people reach the age of 21, they are no longer eligible for the continuous glucose monitors. Again, I'm a big advocate for type 1 diabetes. What we're seeing is that, once people are over the age of 21, they no longer qualify for continuous glucose monitors unless they have a serious hypoglycaemic event that requires hospitalisation. The reports that I'm getting from the Diabetes Foundation and from advocates for type 1 diabetes is that young people are actually putting their lives at risk by purposely going into a hypoglycaemic event so that they can be transferred to the hospital and can qualify once again to get the continuous glucose monitors under the PBS, because they simply cannot afford them, particularly if they are studying or working part time and don't have wealthy parents who can pay for them. Young people are putting their lives at risk to get continued access to the continuous glucose monitors. I would urge the minister and this government, as a matter of urgency, to have a look at extending the regime and the access to continuous glucose monitors for people over the age of 21 so that we don't have young people putting their lives at risk.

Just to conclude, as I said, Labor does support this bill. We support anything that is going to make medications more available to the people who need them. We do this with a history of continuing to hold this government to account as it wants to increase the costs of medicine and shows tardiness on putting drugs onto the PBS once they have been approved by the PBAC. I would urge this government and this Minister to look at those 60 drugs that have been approved. I urge the minister to be able to look children with cystic fibrosis and their parents in the eye and say to them that he did all he possibly could and used his position as the Minister for Health to get Symdeko onto the PBS as soon as possible, because every day that goes by is a day that these children and their parents are suffering and a day that that suffering is continuing needlessly.