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Parties declare war over drugs

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Access to medicines has become an election battleground, with the Coalition warning a Labor pledge to keep the cost of prescription drugs down will push many lifesaving treatments out of reach.

In his second major health announcement of the campaign, Opposition leader Bill Shorten announced a Labor Government would scrap Coalition plans to increase the patient co-payment for Pharmaceutical Benefit Scheme medicines and lift safety net thresholds.

The measure, which Labor estimates will cost $971 billion over four years and $3.6 billion over a decade, seeks to undo changes unveiled by Joe Hockey in the 2014 Budget to add $5 to the $38.30 PBS co-payment for general patients and 80 cents to the $6.20 co-payment for concession card patient.

In addition, Labor has promised not to increase safety net thresholds (currently at $1475.70 for general patients and ($372 for concessional patients) faster than inflation – as opposed to Coalition plans for an annual 10 per cent increase.

Legislation to implement the 2014 Budget changes has been stalled in the Senate but was included in the most recent Budget, indicating that the Government remains committed to its implementation, and creating an opening for Labor.

“Malcolm Turnbull confirmed his commitment to these cuts by building them into his first Budget earlier this month,” Mr Shorten said. “Labor will not stand by and let Malcolm Turnbull and the Liberals dismantle universal health care. Labor believes every Australia deserves access to affordable medicine.”

Mr Shorten said Labor’s promise would be funded from the proceeds of ditching the Coalition’s planned $50 billion company tax cut.

But the Prime Minister hit back by calling into question whether a future Labor Government would be able to afford to subsidise access to new but often hugely expensive treatments for cancer, hepatitis and other serious illnesses.

Mr Turnbull said that by managing “the health budget well, we have been able to bring onto the PBS $3 billion worth of new medicines”.

The Government claims that since coming to office it has funded the addition of almost 1000 medicines worth about $4.4 billion to the PBS, including treatments for hepatitis C, melanoma, breast cancer and diabetes.

Health Minster Sussan Ley accused Labor of having “no plan for listing medicines at all. I see increased spending, poorly targeted. I do not see any of the reforms necessary to do what the Coalition has been able to do in the medicines listing space”.

Among its election promises, the Coalition has announced it will invest $7 million to make Australia an easier place to conduct clinical trials – potentially giving Australians early access to access to breakthrough treatments.

The Minister said the Coalition had a much stronger record than Labor of listing new drugs – “We are talking about breakthrough cures here. There is no time to wait. We know we will list it and the Labor Party will not”.

But Shadow Health Minster Catherine King said Labor would maintain the arrangement under which new drugs were assessed for listing on the PBS by the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee, including the threshold set by the Coalition over which approval must be considered by Cabinet.

AMA President Professor Brian Owler welcomed Labor’s pledge to dump the planned PBS patient co-payments and changes to safety net threshold indexation.

Professor Owler said the Coalition had sought to impose new and higher costs of patients “at all levels” of the health system, including GPs, pathology, diagnostic imaging and prescriptions.

“This is deterring those that can least afford it from going and filling their prescription,” he told Sky News. “So Labor’s pledge is very welcome, and I think patients should be very pleased about that. Particularly those with complex and chronic illnesses.”

Professor Owler said it was wrong for the Minister to claim Labor would not list new drugs.

“The recommendations [to list drugs] come through an independent committee through the PBAC process, and that’s a very robust assessment process, and then the recommendations are made,” he said. “Now, there have been some very good things that have been done, particularly around the hep-C medicines that have been funded, and that’s been very good for those patients, but that doesn’t preclude that happening under Labor’s plans.”

Adrian Rollins