Legislation modernising rules on who can prescribe medicines to patients and also streamlining the process for approving new drugs passed its first stage last night - five years later than it should have, according to Labour.

The Medicines Amendment Bill, which amends the Medicines Act 1981, passed its first reading yesterday with unanimous support and will now be considered by the health select committee.

Labour health spokeswoman Maryan Street welcomed the bill but questioned why the Government was only advancing the legislation now - "Why not five years ago?"

She said that similar legislation introduced by the Labour Government in 2007 was blocked by National, which was "playing naked politics" at the timeby "jumping on the bandwagon of people in the supplementary medicines industry".


Ms Street said National MP Tony Ryall, now Minister of Health, led the opposition to Labour's version, which also contained measures dealing with the establishment of a joint medicines regulator with Australia, on concerns it would "put up the cost of everybody's Berocca ... never mind that the intention was to regulate unregulated medicines coming in from overseas and being sold to New Zealanders".

By blocking Labour's bill, National had ensured New Zealand lost the potential for a faster process for approving medicines over the past five years.

National MP Paul Hutchison, however, said that Labour had the opportunity to get the numbers to pass the legislation five years ago, "but they failed to do so".

"So it's tremendous that we are now under a National Government able to get this bill through and are going to be supported by the Labour Opposition."

* Brings New Zealand into line with other countries by moving the boundary between medicines and medical devices so that products such as pregnancy test kits, contact lens solutions and Nasal irrigation fluids will no longer be regulated as medicines.
* Changes the approval process for new medicines so that those with higher risk factors face more rigorous tests, while less riskier drugs can be approved faster.
* Gives nurse practitioners and optometrists the ability to prescribe medicines like medical practitioners, dentists and midwives.
* Establishes a new category of health workers who will be able to prescribe certain types of medicines under the delegated authority of an authorised prescriber, such as a doctor.