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Turnbull’s Parliament Gambit Risks Delaying Access to Life-Saving Drugs

A plan to give seriously ill Australians faster access to potentially life-saving drugs could be delayed because of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s decision to cancel a week of lower house sittings.

The government has promised to introduce a fast track for drug approvals that would give patients access to promising new prescription medicines up to two years earlier than under the current system.

The new “provisional pathway” system is due to begin on January 1 next year – but that timetable depends on Parliament’s approval.

And with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull controversially cancelling a week of the House of Representatives, the draft laws now appear unlikely to pass through both chambers before Parliament rises for its two-month summer break.

When he introduced the bill in September, Health Minister Greg Hunt emphasised how much the new system, based on European and North American models, would help desperate Australians.

“This would allow Australian patients with currently inadequate treatment options to access potentially life-saving or life-transforming medicines up to two years earlier,” he said.

But a spokesman for Mr Hunt would not commit to any timetable on Monday: “The bill has been introduced and second reading has been given. It will continue to be progressed in line with House business.”

Labor’s health spokeswoman Catherine King said the potential delay was the real-world consequence of the government’s “chaos”.

“It’s a cruel blow to the Australians who could benefit from this new pathway – leaving them in limbo because Turnbull finds it too hard to turn up to work,” Ms King said.

The Therapeutic Goods Administration has been preparing to implement the new system from January 1, however the bill itself says it will start on January 1 or the day after the bill was given royal assent – whichever was later.

The new system will allow medicines to be registered on the basis of early data – rather than only after full clinical trials – when patients with a serious condition have a pressing need.

The changes were a key recommendation of a regulatory review ordered by former health minister Peter Dutton way back in October 2014. The report was delivered to his replacement Sussan Ley in early 2015 – and found Australian patients had to wait an average of five months longer than patients in the US or Europe for anti-cancer medicines, seven months longer for cardiovascular medicines and up to 15 months longer for nervous system medicines.

It took the government another two-and-a-half years to introduce the changes into Parliament.

Mr Turnbull cancelled this week’s lower house sittings in a bid to minimise exposure to potentially damaging Coalition splits on the floor of the house, where the government is currently two MPs down.

The House will now resume next Monday but that week will be dominated by debate about same-sex marriage, as well as the ongoing dual citizenship saga that has so far forced nine MPs from Parliament.

Labor says the medicines bill is one of 53 the lower house could have dealt with this week.

Others include draft laws to crackdown on terrorism financing, toughen up regulations for bank executives and respond to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

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