‘This bill won’t fix the crisis.’

Bill to reduce PBS safety net thresholds from 1 January 2020 has now passed both Houses, but Labor criticises government on medicines costs

The National Health Amendment (Safety Net Thresholds) Bill 2019 has passed both Houses following a second and third reading in the Senate on 14 November.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Health Minister Greg Hunt jointly announced the proposal for the bill in May, as part of the Coalition’s election campaign.

During the second reading Senator Carol Brown said Labor supported the bill, noting the party had matched the government’s commitment to reduce the safety net thresholds during the election campaign.

The bill will see PBS safety net thresholds reduced from 1 January 2020, allowing approximately 1.6 million concessional patients and 129,000 general patients to reach the PBS safety net sooner.

For concessional patients the threshold will be reduced from 60 PBS concessional co-payments to 48 PBS concessional co-payments.

“This will reduce the concessional safety net threshold to an estimated $316.80 in 2020. Without this proposal, the 2020 concessional safety net threshold would have risen to an estimated $396,” explained Health Minister Greg Hunt in the House of Representatives in September.

“The safety net threshold for general patients will reduce from the 2019 level of $1,550.70 to $1,486.80. Without this proposal, the 2020 general safety net threshold would have risen to $1,586.40. It’s an effective saving of $100.”

However Senator Brown used the opportunity during the second reading to criticise the government on medicines affordability.

“Unfortunately, this bill won’t fix the crisis in medicine affordability that we see on this government’s watch,” she said.

“The government’s own figures show that many Australian’s don’t fill prescriptions, because they can’t afford them,” said Senator Brown.

She cited data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics and Australia Institute of Health and Welfare that revealed over 960,000 people a year delay or avoid taking prescribed medicines due to cost.

“The rate of people skipping prescriptions is twice as high in the most disadvantaged areas, at 10%, as in the least disadvantaged areas, at 5%, meaning that the cost of medicine is contributing to health inequality in Australia,” said Senator Brown.

Her arguments echo those of Labor’s Member for Dobell Emma McBride, a pharmacist, when the same bill was debated in the House of Representatives in October.

“What has this third-term government done about this crisis? It’s tried to make it worse. In the 2014 budget the government proposed to increase the costs of PBS medicines by up to $5, even for pensioners, and to increase the thresholds for the PBS safety net,” said Senator Brown.

“Only Labor’s opposition in the parliament stopped the government from implementing this measure.”

She also cricitised the government for delaying PBS listings, labelling it “appalling”.

Minister Hunt recently said in Parliament that the government “has a commitment to list all medicines on the PBS when recommended to do so by the medical experts”.

“That recommendation is, however, a legal precondition before we can make such recommendations, and it’s a precondition that those recommendations are complied with before we can complete the listing process.

“This is in contrast to the previous government, who in 2011 stopped the listing of some new medicines for the simple reason that they could not manage the economy,” said Minister Hunt.

“As the budget papers of the day said, due to fiscal circumstances the government will defer the listing of some new medicines until fiscal circumstances permit. Under us, fiscal circumstances will always permit the listing of new medicines.”

See the explanatory memorandum for the bill here

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