The community pharmacy lobby has warned that doubling prescription lengths and boosting the amount of medicine available in each script will disrupt supply and may present a risk to patients.
The Pharmacy Guild is challenging a renewed push from doctors ahead of the May budget to change dispensing and prescribing rules, instead proposing even lower caps on medicine payments.
Pharmacy Guild president Trent Twomey has written to all federal MPs claiming “the usual vested interests in the powerful medical lobby” wanted Health Minister Mark Butler to change the rules with potentially dangerous consequences.
The war of words between the pharmacy lobby and doctors’ groups has escalated ahead of the May budget, with the guild instead lobbying Butler and MPs to further reduce the cap on medicine payments from $30 – which Labor introduced after the election – to $19.
Almost 6 per cent of Australians delayed getting their prescriptions due to cost last year.
Twomey argued in his letter that the proposal for cheaper medicines was good healthcare policy and “good retail politics” which, while costing $920 million over the four-year forward estimates, would provide cost of living relief on 70 per cent of PBS medicines for up to 19 million Australians.
The guild says its modelling also shows $19 medicines would positively affect five times as many scripts as the 60-day dispensing rules being advocated by the Royal Australian College of GPs and Australian Medical Association.
The consumer health lobby and independent MP Dr Monique Ryan are backing the doctors’ call for the government to follow a 2018 recommendation from the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee that said 60 days’ supply and 12-month scripts should be available for 143 medicines used to treat chronic conditions. They say it would save Medicare millions, reduce consumer payments and free up doctors’ time.
In his letter to all MPs countering the push, Twomey said it was already challenging for pharmacists to provide 30 days’ medication, with hundreds of drugs subject to supply disruptions.
“While some patients … will have twice as much as they need, many more will have none,” he wrote.
“Doubling the quantity of medications in circulation may also facilitate inappropriate and harmful use … At a time when the TGA is reducing the pack size of paracetamol, it is incongruent to increase the surplus quantity of prescription medication in the community.”
But the GPs’ college has also doubled down on its advocacy, releasing a survey of 1000 GPs of whom 85 per cent agreed the extended prescriptions and larger medicine supplies would benefit their patients.
“Patient wellbeing must come first, ahead of pharmacy owner profits,” said college president Nicole Higgins. “The Pharmacy Guild won’t like it; they have been campaigning aggressively against these changes for years in order to protect their bottom line.
“I understand why Health Minister Mark Butler will be hesitant to take on this lobbying leviathan, but I urge him to stand up to the Guild and do what’s right for the Australian people.”
Health economist Stephen Duckett said the medicine co-payment had only recently been reduced from $42.50 to $30 in January.
“My view is we really need to do those other things [around] the [number of] payments people have to make, rather than the size of each payment. That will be better for more people,” he said.
“Paying $30 once is better than paying $19 by going to the pharmacist twice. It benefits concession card holders as well, who are on the [$7.30 rate].
“The only people who lose out are the pharmacy owners, who are, surprise surprise, putting up an alternative model that keeps people coming back to them and paying each time.”
Butler last week said cheaper medicines were good for families’ hip pocket and health, which was why his government had cut the co-payment to $30.
“The Bureau of Statistics tells us that every year, hundreds of thousands of Australians go without medicines … because they simply can’t afford it,” he said when asked about both lobby groups’ proposals last Thursday.
“I’m not going to get into speculation about the budget … But we’re always on the lookout for other ways in which we can lower the price of medicines.”
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