Deputy PM says costs will always be lower under Coalition - clearly not talking about health costs

Mr STEPHEN JONES (Throsby) (17:42): The National Health Amendment (Pharmaceutical Benefits) Bill 2014 is a part of the government's plan to increase the cost of health services for all Australians. It includes the $7 GP tax; the $55 billion in cuts to hospital funding, which have been roundly condemned by every single premier and chief minister, the AMA and every health association in the country; and a 13 per cent increase in PBS out-of-pocket costs. Labor will not be supporting the bill. Let me explain why. It increases the PBS charges from 1 January 2015—for general patients by $5 to $42.70, and for concessional patients by $0.80 to $6.90. These changes are above and beyond the usual CPI increases and indexation. On top of this, the concessional PBS safety net threshold is increased by two prescriptions per year and the general safety net threshold is increased by 10 per cent each year for four years. The bill raises $1.3 billion over four years and diverts money straight from people's pockets—the pockets of sick people—into the Medical Research Future Fund. We simply cannot support the bill.

In question time today, we heard the Deputy Prime Minister say that costs would always be lower under the coalition. Clearly he was not talking about the cost of health services. This bill introduces a 13 per cent increase to the cost of prescriptions on top of the $7 GP tax. This means that a patient is lucky to pay just less than $100 in out-of-pocket expenses for a trip to the doctor that results in two prescriptions and a blood test. Nobody can claim that that is lower than under Labor. The Treasurer famously said the GP tax payment would be about the equivalent of a couple of beers or one-third of a packet of cigarettes. I know the Treasurer has expensive taste but you would struggle even in this town to find a beer that cost you 100 bucks. Clearly, the Treasurer is out of touch and these propositions are out of touch.

For Australians living in the country, in regional areas such as the one I represent, where bulk-billing rates are lower and it already costs more to travel the greater distances to see your doctor, the costs will be even greater. For Australians with private health insurance cover, this measure comes on top of the largest increase to private health insurance premiums that have been approved by a government in living member. One of the health minister's first acts on coming to government was the approval of over a six per cent increase in private health insurance premiums. It is simply not fair and Labor cannot support it.

The government has a package of measures which is deliberately designed to drive up the cost of health care for every day Australians. We saw during the MPI debate today the member for Lyne concede that exact point. The measures are designed to drive up the cost of health services, of visiting a GP, because if you do that you are going to dissuade people from going to the doctor.

The government could do well to remember the lessons of history, because there are very few social programs in this country that enjoy the kind of support that the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme enjoys. You might remember, Mr Deputy Speaker, that the Curtin government first attempted to introduce the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme in 1944, and the conservatives at that point in time opposed it. In fact, the then Country Party premier of Victoria assisted in taking the bill to the High Court, and the High Court knocked it off. That led the Curtin government to introduce a referendum which would permit the federal passage of the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme legislation. The conservatives fought the scheme then and they are fighting it again today, because, frankly, deep down they do not support it. They would do well to remember the fact that there are very few schemes such as the PBS which have been effectively endorsed in a referendum. 

When the Prime Minister promised on ABC radio on 5 September, just days from the federal election, that he could assure the listeners to that program that there would be no cuts to health, those listeners could not have imagined what would follow. Not only has the health budget been slashed to the tune of $50 billion; this bill raises an extra $1.3 billion from the pockets of ordinary Australians—on top of other measures such as the GP tax, which raises billions more. It hurts every Australian. It is unfair. It is a breach of trust. We simply cannot support it.

I have said in previous debates on related issues that, on this particular issue, The Nationals are missing in action. When I look at the speakers listed for this debate, an honourable exception is the member for Lyne. He is stepping up to the plate. He will be speaking on this bill. And I am going to be listening very carefully to his contribution.

Mr McCormack: It will be a good one.

Mr STEPHEN JONES: It will be. I hope that, when the member for Lyne makes his contribution, he will move an amendment to this legislation—because he ought to. If he is going to keep faith with the commitments that he and every other National Party member made when they went to the polls in 2013, he should either move an amendment to this legislation or vote against it. The Nationals should either stand here and move an amendment to the legislation to introduce the policy in the national policy platform that they took to the last election or vote against it. When they went to the polls, they led electors to believe that they were actually going to lower the PBS safety net—and that is exactly the opposite of what this legislation does today.

Mr Deputy Speaker Broadbent, I encourage you and other members to refresh yourselves on what they took to the polls in 2013. Go to page 51 of your policy platform, have a look at it and remind yourselves of what you promised to do when you went to the polls in 2013. I ask you to do that before you make any contributions to this debate. I am looking at the member for Lyne, who is courageous enough to contribute to the debate. There are many other National Party members who have not had the courage to come in and contribute to this debate. But I ask the member for Lyne to look at the policy that they took to the last election and either stand here and speak and vote against this legislation or move an amendment to give effect to your policy platform. That would be the honest thing to do; that would be the right thing to do. I am looking forward to listening to the member for Lyne's contribution and his amendment to this legislation so that he can keep faith with the people who voted for him and so that he can keep faith with all of those other National Party members.

I think there are some very good people within the National Party. When I read their policy platform, I thought, 'There's some pretty good stuff in here.'

Mr McCormack: You were looking at it for ideas, were you?

Mr STEPHEN JONES: There is some very good stuff in there which I would be proud to put my name to. In fact, I have put my name to it. The problem with it is that on each and every occasion that the National Party have had to put their policy into action, they have been done over by their coalition partners. The only other explanation for it is that it was a fraud: they actually did not believe in, and had no intention of implementing, the policy prescriptions, the policy promises, in their platform when they went to the election. They have either broken their promise and always intended to, or they have been done over by the Liberals and have been ineffective in their joint party room. So it is no surprise that all of these National Party members have decided not to step up to the plate and speak on behalf of the coalition for this legislation. The reason is that they simply cannot support it. They cannot support it because they campaigned against it in the last election.

In her contribution to this debate, the shadow health minister, the member for Ballarat, spoke with great passion and at great length about the impact of this legislation. She referred to the COAG Reform Council; that is the council the coalition have abolished because they did not like the message that it was delivering. What will be the last report of the COAG Reform Council, which was released in early June this year, found that 8.5 per cent of people in 2012-13 were already delaying or failing to fill a prescription due to its cost. In disadvantaged areas that figure was higher: 12.4 per cent of people in disadvantaged areas are already not filling their prescriptions because they cannot afford to. In Indigenous areas the figure is higher again, at 36.4 per cent. So 36 per cent of Indigenous Australians who have gone to their doctor and had a prescription given to them to deal with their health concerns or problems by a medical practitioner have not taken the next step of filling that prescription, because they cannot afford to. What on earth is going to happen to that group of people if we are ever unfortunate enough to have this legislation pass through this House and the other house? I am confident that it will not pass through this House because I am confident that the National Party MPs are going to stand here and vote in accordance with not only their conscience but their policy. Should that not happen, and we have to rely on members in the other place, I hope they will do the right thing, because it is those groups of people who will suffer.

The health system will suffer as well. When you go to your doctor and then fill a prescription for a health problem, it is the medications you take that stop a chronic condition becoming an acute condition and an acute condition requiring you to present yourself to a hospital. We all know that hospital is the most expensive place for a health condition to be dealt with.

The health minister has claimed that the PBS costs are spiralling out of control. We know that that is not true. We have seen, and I spoke on this earlier, significant savings that the government is now enjoying due to reforms that were put in place by the previous Labor government. I have in mind the accelerated price disclosure as just one example. It is a measure that Medicines Australia and others within the medicines alliance have pointed to and said, 'This is the single measure that is generating the largest amount of savings in the coalition's budget.' I would expect members on the other side of the House to pay tribute to the Labor government for assisting them on this issue, but in not one contribution from government members has it been mentioned.

If this measure is designed to make a co-contribution to the cost of the PBS, why is the government siphoning off the money and sending it to the Medical Research Future Fund? If the money was not going to the medical research fund and was going to help fulfil the cost of the PBS you might say, 'We disagree with it. We think the cost burden is going to be felt hardest by the people who can least afford it, but we can understand the logic.' But that is not what is happening. If the purpose of this is to send a price signal, you have to ask yourself whether those on the other side truly believe that GPs around the country are writing off scripts on a whim without any concern for the clinical needs of their patients. I for one do not believe that the vast majority of our GPs are that negligent.

Labor cannot support this bill. We see this as yet another attack by the coalition parties against the excellent universal health system in this country. I look forward to listening to the contributions of National Party members. I hope they do the right thing by the people of Australia.