Trading away our health

Secret trade negotiations could affect the health care of every Australian.

Australians could be paying a lot more for medicine under an international trade agreement being negotiated in secret – and it’s time to let the public in on the secret deal.

Two NSWNMA delegates on the New South Wales north coast delivered this message to their local member of parliament with a warning that the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) could undermine the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS).

American drug companies see the PBS as a barrier to increased profits and the Australian government seems to be listening to them, putting profits before the health interest of Australians.

Charmaine Murphy RN, delegate for the NSWNMA at Lismore Base Hospital, and Kyogle Hospital NSWNMA branch official, Gail Jenkins, took their concerns about the TPP to the federal member for Page, Kevin Hogan.

Australia, the US, Japan and nine other countries are involved in the TPP.

The NSWNMA has joined with organisations such as consumer advocacy group Choice, in calling on the government to release the contents of the TPP so we know what is being traded.

Choice says that while the public is being kept in the dark, “a group comprising industry lobbyists from the United States have had access to full drafts of the TPP.”

Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) says the TPP includes some of the most harsh provisions against access to medicines ever included in a trade agreement.

A group of about 50 academics with expertise in public health and medicine wrote to federal health minister Peter Dutton asking him “not to sell out to commercial interests Australia’s sovereign rights to protect health”.

Charmaine Murphy and Gail Jenkins told MP Kevin Hogan they were concerned that the TPP could result in Australians having to wait longer for generic versions of drugs, with implications for the old and chronically ill in particular.

“We explained that international drug companies saw our PBS as a threat to profits. Kevin Hogan was quite interested in what we had to say,” Charmaine said.

“He was particularly interested in reading ministerial responses to the material sent to them by the NSWNMA.

“A free trade agreement sounds innocuous but the secrecy means we don’t know what’s in the agreement.”

Reports suggest the TPP may extend the life of pharmaceutical patents, and allow companies to gain new patents on existing drugs, by making small changes to their formulation such as changing the dosage or even changing from a tablet to a capsule.

This could mean cheaper generic versions of medications take a lot longer to reach the market.

Charmaine said she was also concerned that the TPP would give foreign companies the right to sue Australian governments if they introduced laws to protect public health – such as plain packaging of cigarettes or laws to protect the environment.

“This could threaten laws and regulations to limit coal seam gas mining. This is a big issue in Lismore where residents voted 87% ‘No’ against CSG mining.

“Kevin Hogan spoke a lot about CSG threats to the environment in his maiden speech to parliament and we raised the implications of the TPP in the context of his speech,” Charmaine said.