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Supporting cheaper medicines

I rise to support the National Health Amendment (General Co-payment) Bill 2022. The cost-of-living crisis is impacting Australians hard. Inflation continues to increase and is set to peak at eight per cent. Interest rates are rising, as has the cost of petrol, energy and food. The past few years and months have created the perfect storm. The price of powering a heater has surged due to a nine-year failure in energy policy by the previous government. The cost of filling up a car is almost double what it was 12 months ago. Extreme weather events have impacted our supply chains. At one stage an iceberg lettuce was nearly $12. The maximum co-payment for a medical prescription has doubled since 2000.

But now things will change. As a local GP, I know that even long before the current cost-of-living crisis the cost of medications has been a major issue for many Australians, particularly for those with chronic disease, co-morbidities, or a family with a number of children. As a GP developing treatment plans for the average everyday Australian, I know that the cost of medications and therapies needs to be taken into account. By reducing co-payments for medications to a maximum of $30, down from $42.50, someone with two or three medications can save up to $450 a year. That is why I welcome the National Health Amendment (General Co-payment) Bill. It is a small but significant and important cost-of-living measure that will support millions of everyday Australians.

Over the last few weeks I have spoken to a number of pharmacists in my electorate. All welcomed this legislation. One pharmacist in particular, who owns pharmacies in both my electorate of Mackellar and in Western Sydney, expressly told me how critically important this bill will be in his Western Sydney practice. He described how it is increasingly common for customers to ask their pharmacist which medicines are the least essential, because they can't afford all of them. He told me that he believes cutting the cost of medications to a maximum of $30 a script will make a significant difference to many of his customers.

Equity of access to health care is a core principal of the Australian health system. I would like to acknowledge that the former government pursued this goal by decreasing the PBS safety net threshold. This bill goes one step further by limiting the cost of each individual script for those not already on concession cards. But decreasing the cost of medicines is only a start when it comes to equity of access to health care in Australia. So I take this opportunity to call on the government to do more to make health care more accessible for all Australians.

There is also a looming crisis in primary health care in this country. The cost of seeing a GP has been steadily rising for years, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to even get an appointment to see a GP, especially one that bulk-bills. The waiting times are getting longer and longer. In some rural and regional areas, the wait to see a GP, I'm told, can be months. These are significant barriers to ordinary Australians accessing health care.

Just yesterday I received an email message from a constituent who said: 'I sometimes have to skip my medication to make it last longer. Getting a doctor's appointment is near impossible, especially a bulk-billed one, and paying for consultation fees isn't in the budget.' So what needs to be done in this regard? Firstly, we need to decrease the cost of seeing a GP by increasing the Medicare rebate. Following a several-year freeze of the Medicare rebate, more and more general practice owners facing increasing costs and stagnant revenue have had to adapt by introducing private billing of their patients. Most GPs in my electorate are now private billing.

I was recently visited in my Mackellar office by the CEO of Cornerstone Health, a healthcare company which has the stated purpose of increasing access to quality primary health care for all Australians by providing a network of bulk-billing GP services across the states of New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria. Henry Bateman, the CEO, told me that even they, as a corporate healthcare provider, are feeling the pressure to implement a co-payment due to the long-term inadequacy of the Medicare rebate. If this were to happen, it would mean that access to bulk-billed GP services would be significantly curtailed even further. Unless there is a change, the cost of visiting a GP will become increasingly prohibitive for many, meaning millions of people will simply delay or avoid medical care.

Barriers to seeing a GP have been further compounded by the chronic shortage of GPs that has been slowly growing over the past couple of decades. Deloitte Access Economics forecast that by 2030 Australia will be short 10,000 GPs across the country, or almost 25 per cent of the workforce. My electorate of Mackellar is already 17 per cent below the Australian average number of GPs per 100,000, and many doctors are not able to see new patients.

Additionally, the GP workforce is an ageing one. Almost 25 per cent of GPs in my electorate of Mackellar are over 65 years old. That's a potential decrease of 25 per cent of GPs if they retire over the next five to 10 years. We simply don't have enough medical graduates undertaking general practice training. Only 15 per cent of junior doctors are specialising as GPs. We need policy measures that build on advocacy to drive this number to what the AMA believes should be 50 per cent.

Both of these factors outlined above—the increasing cost to see a GP coupled with GP shortages—mean that people are instead presenting to emergency departments to get their medical care, thereby putting extra strain on an already overstretched and stressed hospital system. We also know that GPs are critical to preventive health. The problem is not going away. It is forecast to get worse. We need to act strategically now to resolve the current GP shortage before it becomes a full-blown crisis. The Royal Australian College of GPs' 'Become a GP' campaign is a start, but there need to be more incentives at a tertiary level and we need for the workplace to drive the uptake. So I applaud the Minister for Health and Aged Care, who has stated that GP shortages will be a priority for him.

There is a simple policy measure similar to the PBS medications co-payment bill that, if implemented, would go a long way to solving the problem of the GP shortage—that is, increasing the Medicare rebate. This would help to address the high cost of visiting a GP while also supporting GP practices to remain viable. We are still playing catch-up from a six-year freeze—six years when the cost to doctors increased and the CPI increased. What is needed is a reasonable increase in the Medicare rebate, one that will help relieve the cost-of-living pressures of everyday Australians, by reducing GP fees, while balancing the considerations of our current national debt. That increase would also assist doctors to continue to bulk-bill and help to incentivise more new doctors to become GPs.

Mr Deputy Speaker, I commend this bill to the House. Lowering the cost of medications will deliver a reduced cost of living for many Australians and improve equity of access to health care. I look forward to further health equity measures being implemented to increase access to primary healthcare services.

You can watch the full speech here