Are double script lengths really off the table?

greg hunt and catherine king

During today’s Health debate, neither the Minister nor Shadow Minister ruled out the possibility of double-sized packs being dispensed for certain chronic conditions… with both saying instead that they would “consult”

Health Minister Greg Hunt and Opposition Health spokesperson Catherine King faced off at the National Press Club in Canberra today, with each outlining their track record in the sector and discussing their election promises.

Both responded to a question asked by News Corp health reporter Sue Dunlevy, several of whose past articles have been critical of the Pharmacy Guild.

Ms Dunlevy said to Mr Hunt that “there’s one recommendation of the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee that you haven’t acted on: it’s a recommendation that would have saved millions of Australians up to $240 a year on their medicine costs”.

“It was a recommendation that doctors be able to prescribe people with chronic illnesses medicines in pack sizes that would last for two months. That recommendation would also have saved the taxpayer many millions of dollars because you wouldn’t have had to pay as many dispensing fees.

“Now, you backed down on a decision to act on that after the Pharmacy Guild ran some ads in major newspapers just before the Budget. Could you tell Australian voters today why it is that you’ve decided to side with 3,000 wealthy pharmacy owners at the expense of the hip pockets of Australian patients and the convenience of Australian patients, and to the detriment of Australian taxpayers?”

Mr Hunt said that “I respectfully disagree with some of the characterisation”.

He replied that the Coalition had indeed been acting on PBAC recommendations and listing more medicines.

“Only today, we have announced a $308 million plan which we will implement which will deliver a lower cost of medicines to Australian patients,” he said.

“That lower cost of medicines will mean that patients who are pensioners or concession card holders will be able to access free scripts earlier; and by being able to access those free scripts earlier they won’t just save money, but they will be able to manage their own budget better and manage their own medicines better.

“And those patients who are not concession card holders will be able to access discounted scripts at an earlier time.

“In relation to the proposal that’s been put forward we’ll consider and consult. And the reason that you do that is because there are differing views within the medical community, and I respect and acknowledge those.

“By doing that, that’s the way we’ve been able to create things such as the new primary care initiative, where we considered and consulted and worked in creating a transformative approach to primary care – why we were able to strike an agreement with Medicines Australia which allowed us to ensure that there was the investment to deliver all of these new medicines.

“So that’s the approach we’ve taken, which has worked and delivered, and that’s the approach we will continue to take going forwards.”

Ms Dunlevy asked of Catherine King: “Given that Labor has made a point of taking on the top end of town, and delivering to ordinary Australians will you act on the advice of the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee and allow Australian doctors to prescribe medicines for periods of two months?”

Ms King responded that when it was last in Government, Labor listed more than $6 billion worth of medicines, “including the ones that Greg wants to keep mentioning that we somehow… he makes the claim that we stopped listing all medicines, which is actually just simply a lie”.

She also said that Labor “continued the work of John Howard in reforming the PBS to allow through simplified price disclosure for one thing, to actually allow substantial savings to be realised to continue the listing of medicines”.

She pointed out that there are 18 medicines the Government will “never” be able to list due to price disclosure negotiations having broken down.

“In relation to the issue around the Guild, I think the really important thing is that there is an agreement – there is a Community Pharmacy Agreement,” Ms King said.

“And that Pharmacy Agreement is the process by which governments negotiate, with the community pharmacy sector and the wholesalers, about how… the dispensing of medicines is going to be conducted.

“If you’re going to do anything, which the Government looked as though it was going to do, you need to do it within the context of those agreements.”

Marnie Banger from AAP also asked about the issue of commercial interests, and asked Mr Hunt for an example of a time he had stood up to these.

“I know George Tambassis well, I respect him immensely,” Mr Hunt replied.

“There was a disagreement we had with the Pharmacy Guild over the upscheduling of codeine. The Pharmacy Guild had one view; others had another view.

“Theirs was based in a deep profound belief… there was a very strong campaign against the Government’s approach. But we made that decision. It was the right decision.

“It’s helped to save lives and to protect lives, and I believed in it. In the end, it will make a difference to thousands and thousands of lives.”

He said he would not allow a crisis on the scale of that experienced in the United States to take place in Australia.

Both Mr Hunt and Ms King said they were against permitting the use of nicotine in e-cigarettes.

Mr Hunt referred to an “epidemic” of youth vaping in the US which he said was a “public health disaster and that is not that something on my watch that I’m willing to countenance”.

He said that the tobacco industry was backing the vaping push and that there was bipartisan opposition to permitting nicotine-containing vaping liquids.

Ms King said the tobacco lobby was attempting to use vaping as a pathway to expand its market and that Labor would resist this.

“The science tells us and the TGA here and the NHMRC… that this is not something that Australia wants to go down the pathway of. I commend the Minister for standing strong on this issue.”

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