LEON BYNER, HOST: It's the passing of legislation which will cut the maximum general co-payment on pharmaceutical benefits from $42.50 to $30. So, Mark Butler, it's good that we can do this for consumers, because so many of them rely on vital medicines. Good morning.
MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE, MARK BUTLER: Good morning, Leon, that's quite an introduction. But we’re pleased we've been able to do this early in our term. We promised at the last election that we'll strengthen Medicare, and we'll cut the cost of medicines and we've been able to get legislation at least through the House of Representatives, and hopefully, through the Senate as well to deliver on that promise on the first of January.
This is the first time in the 75-year history of the pharmaceutical benefits scheme that the price of medicines is actually going to come down rather than go up. It's a very, very big cut to the cost of medicines. And the reason we're doing this is obviously partly because of the huge pressure on people's household budgets at the moment. This will be a welcome relief, delivering about $200 million every year back into the pockets of Australian patients.
But just as importantly as the relief to cost of living is what this will do for the health of the nation. Because we know from the Bureau of Statistics that every year, almost a million Australians go without a medicine that their doctor has said is important to their health because they can't afford it. I've spoken to so many pharmacists who tell stories, particularly of families coming in with a number of scripts that different members of the household might need and asking the pharmacist for advice about which ones are the least important because they can't afford to fill them all.
You know, I'm told by pharmacists that often patients will choose to take the medicine that gives them the most immediate relief - that might be a pain medication, for example - that might be going without the medicine that is actually really important to their longer-term health. So, this is a great piece of public policy delivers cost of living relief, but it also is going to be good for people's health.
BYNER: When does it start Minister?
BUTLER: This kicks in on the 1st of January. As I said, the biggest cut to the price of medicines in Australian history. But also, tomorrow, I'm pleased to say that the price of more than 2,000 brands of medicine - so tomorrow on the 1st of October, the price of more than 2,000 different brands of quite common medicines will also come down.
Esomeprazole for example, which about half a million Australians use for stomach ulcers, that's going to come down by about $7 a script.
Quetiapine, which is used by tens and tens of thousands of Australians for bipolar disorders, and some other similar mental health disorders, that's going to come down as well tomorrow.
And all of this is not only providing relief to Australian patients with their budgets, that price relief tomorrow will also put some money back into the Commonwealth budget, which we can invest in new medicines, new innovative medicines that are helping to save lives.
We've got a new medicine coming onto the PBS tomorrow, called Keytruda to help about 500 patients a year with head and neck cancer. Without that listing on the PBS, this treatment would cost families $135,000 – which pretty much no one can afford that - bringing that down to $42.50 just is a lifesaver and a life changer to those 500 patients.
BYNER: An obvious question is, and I know, in a perfect world, you'd love to be able to pull the rug out for a lot of costs. But in general, what's the actual reason that these reductions have taken so long or take long to do? What's the actual reason why?
BUTLER: Well, the big cut we're making - the legislation we passed - has been a subject of a really long thought-out discussion that the Pharmacy Guild led. They brought to us over a year or two really some really compelling evidence. Firstly, to show that the price of medicines paid by general patients, so this is people who aren't pensioners, who don't have a concession card, but by no means rich. These are people who are working hard, don't have high incomes. The price of medicines paid by that group of hardworking Australians is relatively high if you compare it to UK and New Zealand.
BYNER: Why is that, by the way?
BUTLER: I think it's just that there hasn't been enough attention to that group. Obviously, a lot of attention, for good reason, paid to concessional patients, and there have been reductions in their safety net threshold in recent years to people who are on a concession card.
This group who fall on the wrong side of some of those concession arrangements have really been doing it tough. And so, the pharmacists came and told us about this, presented us with the evidence about the number of Australians who are going without medicines that their doctors had said, not just nice to have, these are medicines that are critical for people's health. It is not just a cost-of-living measure. This is an important public health measure.
BYNER: Good on you for doing it. And it just goes to show that you are you are open to suggestions Mark Butler. I thank you for coming on. He's the Federal Minister of Health.
I've got to say, he’s in my view, one of the best performers in this space in the government, because he does listen, and I know, and I tell you that because a lot of constituents talk to me, as you’d know, both on and off air, by email and so on. And I get very good feedback. So, it's very good that he's open to what consumers need.