Drugs, Poisons and Controlled Substances Amendment (Authorising Pharmacists) Bill 2023

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I rise to speak on the Drugs, Poisons and Controlled Substances Amendment (Authorising Pharmacists) Bill 2023. This bill will make a minor amendment to the Drugs, Poisons and Controlled Substances Act 1981. Can I thank the Minister for Health for bringing this important legislation to the house. I would also like to acknowledge the member for Narracan’s contribution previously and his complete backing of the bill, except for his wanting the one change. It was good to hear that he thought there was some sensible legislation before this body, and so eloquently done as well. I would also like to acknowledge the member for Northcote and the experience she had of working in her family’s community pharmacy. It was great to hear the experience that her mother had of providing highly skilled and trusted advice to the community. No doubt, Deputy Speaker, if you were to provide a contribution on this bill, I am sure that you would be mentioning John Fregon, your father, who provided a pharmacy to the people of Ferntree Gully for many years. I am looking forward to that contribution, if you make it.

The health and wellbeing of every Victorian is of utmost importance, and it is this government that has always invested in and strengthened our healthcare system. Since coming to office in 2014, we have invested $54 billion in our healthcare system as well as the workers we need to run it. The recent budget provided a further $4.9 billion to build and upgrade hospitals, boost healthcare services and give our healthcare workers the support they deserve and need.

That is why in November of 2022 the Andrews Labor government committed to backing our pharmacists and boosting our healthcare system, and I am proud that we are honouring that election commitment by investing $20 million to deliver this 12-month pilot. This bill provides a mechanism which allows for pharmacists to supply certain prescription-only medicines and is necessary for the delivery of the community pharmacy statewide pilot. By establishing such regulatory powers in the act, we are taking the first steps towards establishing a framework for pharmacists to supply medicines within the scope of this pilot. Through the implementation of these changes, pharmacists will be able to undertake structured prescribing on defined health conditions and medicines. This is similar to the approach in Queensland, which is currently running a pilot program for urinary tract infections (UTIs). There is also another trial being undertaken in New South Wales.

I would also like to acknowledge the consultation that has occurred in the process of drafting this bill. Key stakeholders have had meetings with the Minister for Health since the announcement of the pilot, and the department has liaised with the Pharmacy Board of Australia and the Australian Pharmacy Council on the intended approach for this pilot. Furthermore, the design of the pilot will be informed by an advisory group consisting of key stakeholders, including doctors, pharmacists, the community and consumers. This process is important to the success of this program. The pilot will make it easier and cheaper for Victorians to get the health care they need when they need it. Through this pilot the community will be able to access quicker treatments for mild skin conditions as well as oral contraception. Participating pharmacist immunisers will also be able to administer additional travel and other public health vaccines. Just a couple of weeks ago I popped into the pharmacy that is next door to my electorate office and was able to get the flu vaccine there. It was easy to book in straightaway, and they were very helpful. I was able to get the COVID vaccine there as well. Our community pharmacies are very important to us.

It also builds on our record of delivering for women’s health. UTIs are something that affects nearly one in three women before the age of 24, and this reform will mean that Victorians can access the care that they need quickly. Compared with men, women have higher rates of mental, sexual and reproductive ill health, and that is why we have committed to invest in sexual and reproductive health hubs, maternity services, the Victorian women’s health program, family and reproductive rights education programs and statewide women’s health services, amongst numerous measures to ensure equality of access to health services. We are giving women’s health the focus and attention that it deserves by meeting our obligations and commitments to the people of Victoria. Women’s health has always been and always will be a priority of our government.

The pilot also alleviates financial stress for Victorian families, which is very important right now. It ensures that there are no financial barriers for Victorians to access the multitude of services offered under this pilot. No Victorian will pay more for an approved service than if they had visited a bulk-billing GP. The government will subsidise the cost of eligible medicines from community pharmacies so that the costs will be the same as under the pharmaceutical benefits scheme. In order to ensure patient safety and quality care, strong clinical governance will be in place.

Participating community pharmacists will be required to undergo additional training and will need to follow specific guidelines for medicine prescriptions. They will also be provided with further guidance and protocols as to which patients must be referred to a doctor and which patients can receive treatment immediately. These requirements will be guided by the pilot’s clinical reference group, consisting of educators and experts, and through such oversight pharmacists can provide competent clinical care and will be familiar with the latest evidence and recommendations. By expanding the role of community pharmacies, pressure is eased on our GPs and hospitals and our primary health care workers.

Primary health care services, including priority primary care centres, play an integral role in the community. I am proud that the Victorian government is investing $29 million to help operate priority primary care centres and GP respiratory clinics for urgent but non-emergency patient care and for preventative and community health programs. I can personally attest to the efficiency and excellence of the priority primary care centres. Some time ago I was playing futsal with the crew of the Monash Labor club, and it so happened to be that one of the players got a painful injury, where his finger was completely sideways –

Juliana ADDISON: Not a UTI?

John MULLAHY: No UTI, no. We are talking about a bent finger.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: Through the Chair.

John MULLAHY: It was completely twisted sideways, and thankfully he was able to go down to the Glen Waverley Primary Priority Care Centre on Blackburn Road on a Sunday at 7 pm, and he got the treatment that he required. He was bandaged up and he was able to return home in less than an hour. If he had gone to the emergency department, it would have taken longer and been a much more complicated process. This example clearly elucidates the effectiveness of priority primary care centres for patients and as a measure for easing pressure on our emergency departments. That is why community pharmacies will be the next step in easing some pressure off our GPs and hospitals.

As part of the $154 million boost for primary care in Victoria there is $43 million allocated to expand primary health services through public providers in women’s prisons, increasing access to medical officers and integrated care. The Andrews Labor government is delivering on its promise to support community pharmacies and to strengthen our healthcare system. In Victoria there are some 1453 community pharmacies and 8324 pharmacists with general registration. Importantly, they are trusted and accessible health professionals who provide excellent service to all Victorians.

In a time when it is harder to see a GP and harder to get the treatment required on time, it is the next logical step to expand the role of respected and experienced community pharmacists. These changes positively impact Victorians and the people of Glen Waverley that I represent. Every Victorian has the right to acquire the medicines they need when they need them for a fair price. The health and safety of Victorians is the number one priority of the Andrews Labor government. This bill and the community pharmacists statewide pilot demonstrates the priority of the Andrews Labor government, because at the heart of every policy is a focus on the wellbeing of every Victorian, no matter their background. We have a responsibility to look after those in need and especially those who are at their most vulnerable. Through this bill and the pilot we continue to build on our progress to improve accessible and quality primary care for all.

We are delivering on yet another election commitment and doing what matters by investing in our healthcare system, our healthcare workers and the wellbeing of Victorians. Supporting women’s health, improving access to primary health services, saving families money, strengthening our primary care system and backing regional health care – these are the benefits of this incredibly important reform. This is what we promised and this is what we are delivering. I commend the bill to the house.

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