I am so pleased to be speaking today in support of the National Health Amendment (General Co-payment) Bill 2022, which delivers on one of our government’s very important election commitments. It has been a huge day for this government delivering on election commitments. We’ve had introduced today legislation for cheaper child care—thank you, Minister Aly. We have had our legislation for a national anticorruption commission introduced today. In fact, we’ve also had our legislation for the respect at work amendments, which will really make Australian workplaces safer places for women. And now we have this legislation around making medicines cheaper for Australians.
All of these are really important reforms that directly affect the lives of people in our communities, because that is what this government is about. We are about introducing changes that make this country a better place and that directly affect lives. I have to reflect that that was certainly not my experience during the three years I spent sitting on the other side of this chamber. In fact, we came into this chamber for bills that were really about presenting a political wedge. They were not about things that impact people’s lives. As I said, I am so proud to be standing here today to talk about this important piece of legislation, delivering on our election commitment and, importantly, really making a difference to the lives of people in my community and to communities right across Australia.
Of course there are challenges that communities across Australia are facing at the moment. As the federal government it is for us to do the best we can to support people and to make sure that we are making their lives easier where we can. I do know that this bill will make a difference in the lives of people in my community. Whether you are in postcode 3081, 3087 or 3088, or in Jagajaga, I know you’re facing cost-of-living pressures. I know that this bill, which makes medicine cheaper, will make a real difference in your life.
Put simply: this bill is about making medicines cheaper. It’s part of our plan for strengthening Medicare and strengthening the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. In the last few years we’ve seen cost-of-living pressures continue to impact across our country. I have had many people in my community, particularly older people when it comes to the cost of medicines, come to me and talk about how day by day, week by week these costs are adding up and they hadn’t felt prior to the last election that they had a government that understood and was taking action on cost-of-living pressures.
We know that, when people are facing cost-of-living pressures in these areas, sometimes spending on medicines can be one of the areas that go. That, of course, should not be the case in a country like ours. People should not be facing difficulties getting access to affordable medicines. While there’s no single fix to cost-of-living pressures, our government is doing a bit that will make a difference to people’s lives and deliver some relief. They will get the support. It will help make a difference to those day-by-day, week-by-week budgets and pressures.
Through our government’s reduction to the PBS general co-payment we will be putting more money back into the pockets of Australians. This is the first time in the 75-year history of the PBS that the maximum cost of general scripts will fall. Under this bill the cost of scripts is being cut by 29 per cent, with the maximum cost to drop by $12.50, dropping the price overall to $30. So, for someone—say, a parent or a grandparent—in my community who might be filling one script a month, this means they could save $150 a year. For a family in my community who might be filling three scripts a month, this change means that every year they could save $450. That is a substantial difference.
By cutting the price of medications by nearly one-third, we’re ensuring that more people can afford to get the medications they need to stay healthy, without having to worry so much about the price. Of course, we know that, in addition to the cost pressure, there is that worry pressure for people around how to make sure that they and their families stay healthy. We do want to reduce that burden as well as the cost pressure—because medicines aren’t an optional extra; they’re essential, and they shouldn’t be the things that people are cutting from their budget.
Since 2000, the price Australians have paid for prescription medications has doubled, which is putting more and more pressure on those who are filling their scripts every month. Under this measure, our government is helping to address this by putting close to $200 million back in the pockets of Australians each year. This change will benefit about 19 million Australians, and 3.6 million Australians will immediately benefit when these changes come into effect from the start of 2023.
As the minister highlighted in his contribution to this debate, the PBS has a long history. And it’s a proud Labor history. It was due to the hard work of two Labor giants, John Curtin and Ben Chifley, that the PBS was introduced in the 1940s—despite pushback from others of the time, including the Liberals. So I can assure those in my community and beyond: under our government, the PBS will continue to be supported. We are committed to seeing the PBS work as well as it can and to providing it as an avenue for people to access medicines at an affordable price.
We do know that, as I said, making medicines cheaper needs to be just one part of our plan to reduce the cost of living—and, again, I point to the cheaper childcare reforms that our government brought in this morning. This is another significant cost that families face, and it’s a cost that, again, has really significant costs if people are cutting back on childcare through being unable to afford to access it. So there’s absolutely more for us to do, and we are getting on with it.
There is, of course, more for us to do in health. Before the pandemic, we knew there was work to do to make our country’s health systems the best they could be, and, post pandemic, that has obviously been reinforced. It is going to take hard work from our government, and from governments and service providers across the country, to make sure that Australia’s health system is as robust and as strong as it should be, so that it provides the care that all of our communities rightly expect. Our government is taking the challenges in our health sector seriously. Beyond this bill, it is an area that we are focused on and will continue to focus on.
I recognise that, in my home state of Victoria, there are significant commitments also being made by our state government, which shares that focus on supporting the health sector and the workers who keep it going every day. My electorate is home to a sizeable medical precinct, with the wonderful Austin Hospital, the wonderful Mercy hospital, Warringah Private Hospital—we are very fortunate to have some wonderful health care locally. And, because of that, we also have wonderful health workers—doctors, nurses, administrative staff, cleaners and many others—who either call Jagajaga home or work in my electorate. I do want to take this opportunity, while I’m talking about our health system and how we can make it as strong as possible, to once again thank all of those workers for the extraordinary work that they have done throughout the pandemic and continue to do today.
We have, in my electorate, recently seen a fantastic commitment from the Andrews Labor government. It will upgrade the emergency department at the Austin. That reinforces once again that it is Labor governments, at both state and federal levels, that deliver on health.
We know that, when the cost of medicines is too high, we see situations where people feel that they have to make an impossible choice between getting the healthcare they need, providing for their family or in fact putting their health at risk. My colleague the member for Robertson did a wonderful job of explaining the very real consequences of that, which he has seen in his work as a health professional. I’m sure we’ll hear from the member for Kooyong about her perspective, as a health professional, on that. And we certainly benefit in this place from having so many people with direct experience here.
According to the ABS, in the 2019-20 period there were close to one million Australians who delayed getting a prescription filled or who didn’t get it filled at all because of costs. That’s a situation our government doesn’t want to see anyone having to face, for them or a family member or a friend. We also know from recent data that nearly two in three Australians have been provided with at least one PBS medicine. So it’s clear the PBS is well utilised and is a benefit to our overall health system. It’s something that people do rely on. As people age, or for people with a disability or experiencing health conditions, there is an increased likelihood that they will need to be supplied with medicines. If you are not personally someone who receives medicines on the PBS, you would, of course, have friends or family members who do. For people who need multiple medications, the situation with prices has meant that they’ve had to decide between medication for immediate relief of pain or other symptoms or medication that will support improvements to their long-term health. In the cases where this choice has come up for people, it’s understandable that they have chosen to look at that short-term fix, potentially exacerbating long-term conditions. This is not a situation that we want people to be facing. It’s not good for them or our wider communities.
Every Australian should be able to access world-class, universal medical care. It is one of the things that I think really sets our country apart from others, that in our community people know that if they need care they will get it and they will get it at an affordable price. It shouldn’t send them to situations where they feel they are making unacceptable choices or facing unacceptable levels of debt or cost pressures. So by making medicines cheaper we are supporting some of the fundamentals of our health system and we are helping to address the cost of living pressures that I know many in my community and other communities are experiencing at the moment.
Importantly, no patient will be worse off under these changes. Pharmacies can still offer optional discounts in situations where the Commonwealth price is between the new and current co-payment amount. The savings this will deliver for Australian will continue over coming years. The general patient co-payment will continue to be indexed each year. From the start of 2024 it will be calculated off the new co-payment amount.
This bill before us will make a real difference to people and families in my community and to communities across the country. It will make a real difference to household budgets and it will help to relieve cost of living pressures. It is just one of the many ways our government is taking action to deliver on our election commitments and to respond to the needs of Australians. We’re not wasting time. We’re getting on with it because we know that people are looking to us for reforms that make their lives easier, that make this a better country for all of us. We are making medicines cheaper, and more broadly we will be making it easier for people to see a doctor and access a world-class system.
Labor’s record in this space speaks for itself. We built Medicare and we will always protect Medicare and do the work needed to make sure that it continues as one of the fundamental underpinnings of our health system—the system that people know means they can see a doctor and do so in an affordable way when they need care. We built the PBS and we will always protect it, as I have explained. We know that people have been facing really difficult choices when it comes to the cost of medicine and making those decisions around their household budgets and whether they are deciding to take, perhaps, all the medicines that have been recommended for them. We have heard as part of this debate conversations that people have been having with doctors or pharmacists: ‘Do I really need this one this month? Can I choose to just take this one this week?’ Because they weren’t sure that they would be able to afford all that had been prescribed for them.
That is absolutely no way to run our country’s health system. That is not a choice that Australians should be facing. It is a choice that our government is trying to make sure no-one will face, so that families will know they can afford the medicine for their children, and older people will know that when they have complex needs they will be able to afford all the medicines they have been prescribed. That’s what this bill is about. It is about making sure that we have a health system that delivers now for our country and our communities, but it’s also about making sure that we have a health system that is built to deliver into the future and that makes sure that people in this country know that they have affordable access to life-saving medicines. I commend this bill to the House.