Community Affairs 23 February 2011
CHAIR—Thank you to the officers and for that follow-up. We are very restricted with time, as you know, but I would like to have the opportunity for some population and health questions. Senator Siewert has a couple. Senator Adams has one or two, but a lot will have to go on notice.
Senator ADAMS—Is that for bowel cancer?
CHAIR—Bowel cancer is what we are leading with.
CHAIR—Senator Fierravanti-Wells, we have time for two questions. That is the only way of doing it. We are going to start with the questions on bowel cancer because Senator Siewert and Senator Adams have questions on bowel cancer.
Senator SIEWERT—We are going to share the bowel cancer questions. Obviously there is a critical time coming up. I realise this is a budget question, but there are questions that we want to ask in the lead-up to that process. As we know, the program has wound up. What processes have been put in place to ensure that there is no loss of effort if the program is refunded? Does that make sense?
Ms Halton—It is a terminating program.
Ms Halton—As you are aware, the government is considering the future of the program. As we do not know what the view of the government is yet, there has been no decision taken. We are not undertaking any activity which is anticipatory one way or the other. Does that make sense?
Senator SIEWERT—So where are you at with the infrastructure that is currently in place for the program?
Mr Smyth—There are contracts in place with Dorevitch Pathology for the issuing of bowel cancer screening kits. We also have a contract in place with Medicare to manage registry functions for the sending out of those kits. We have arrangements in place through the National Healthcare Agreement for states and territories. They receive funding for some of the colonoscopy follow-up functions and the like as well. We pay for it out of the program. All of the infrastructure that is currently in place remains until the program terminates at the end of this calendar year. As Ms Halton said, the rest of that is purely hypothetical and at this point in time we do not know the decision of the government in relation to the future of the program.
Senator SIEWERT—If there is a positive decision made in the budget for the continued funding, can the program just roll on? I am not hedging that with all the other improvements that we are looking to for the program, but if the program is continued it can just keep rolling along—is that correct?
Mr Smyth—Our contract is the issue with the provider of the kits. That ceases basically at the end of this financial year. We would have to look to enter into contractual arrangements for the provision of the kits. That would be one of the key things.
Senator SIEWERT—I am conscious that policy questions should not be asked. As to the expansion of the program to cover in the gaps, for example, for ages that people receive the kits, have you provided advice on how much additional that will cost the government?
Mr Smyth—It is a cabinet related budget decision, so I would not be able to answer that.
Senator ADAMS—This has been a highly successful program. On 21 February, as I am sure you are fully aware, the Medical Journal of Australia published an independent analysis estimating that the program could be fully funded for around a net $80 million per annum based on a $150 million initial annual investment and substantial cost offsets accruing over subsequent years, and the savings would certainly be in reduced hospital services. What is worrying me is you have a team of very good people working on this and they do not know whether their jobs are going to be there—they are on the line or they are out in July. In looking at the recommendations from this independent inquiry, we really should be going down and sending FOBTs to people of 50, 55 and 65 for a one-off testing. You have been doing that, but we have had terrific success with this. But looking at the hospital funding and the difficulty with this cohort having to be hospitalised, I would encourage the government to look very seriously at it. I am terribly worried about the current program staffing and the capacity that we are going to lose with it. It is complex, but this committee has certainly been following this up very closely. I am sure that we may have to become even more involved to try and make sure that it does continue. In a nutshell, I am sure we have covered bowel cancer very well between us.
CHAIR—I take it that is a statement read into the record rather than a question?