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Gloomy pharmacists plan to slash staff because of drug price cuts


The nation’s pharmacies are planning to shed around 10 per cent of their staff in the next 12 months as medicine price cuts slice into revenue, according to an industry survey.

In its latest pronouncement on the effects of the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) price disclosure regime, the Pharmacy Guild of Australia has warned that the results of a national survey it has conducted imply almost 9000 jobs will go in the coming year, including about 2230 pharmacists and 4400 pharmacy assistants, as businesses are forced to cut costs.

“This survey paints a worrying picture,” Guild Executive Director David Quilty said. “While the Guild and pharmacies strongly support the Government getting maximum value for money from the PBS, recent changes to price disclosure are having a very real impact on hard-working pharmacy professionals and the patients they serve.”

Under the price disclosure rules, pharmaceutical companies are required to submit sales information to the Federal Government, which accordingly adjusts the amount it pays for medicines subsidised through the PBS to more closely reflect the price at which they are supplied.

The regime has resulted in multi-million dollar savings to the PBS and to consumers, but has eaten into the margins that pharmacists make on prescription medicines.

The industry has repeatedly warned that the margin squeeze is hurting pharmacies and will force many to dump staff. It has also helped spur efforts to expand the scope of pharmacist practice, including the push for pharmacists to administer vaccinations and to conduct health checks.

Mr Quilty said Guild estimates showed pharmacy gross profits would fall by an average of $90,000 in 2014-15 as a result of price disclosure.

He said the survey found that, as a result, around half of all pharmacies would reduce pharmacist hours, and more than two-thirds would cut pharmacist assistant hours.

The Queensland Government has sanctioned a trial under which 60 pharmacies are administering flu vaccines, and Federal Health Minister Peter Dutton last month declared the Government was “open to discussions” about the future scope of pharmacist practice.

The AMA has voiced strong objections to giving pharmacists authority to give flu shots, warning the health of patients could be put at risk because pharmacists did not have the required knowledge and training to safely administer vaccines, and cautioning that the move would also fragment care.

But the Pharmaceutical Society of Australia said the prospective job cuts indicated by the Guild’s survey underlined the need for the industry and profession to develop new roles and opportunities.

It said it was working with the AMA and other organisations “to identify new areas where pharmacists can work and apply their skills and knowledge, including in palliative care, dementia, wound care, in the delivery of professional programs and in the use of non-dispensing pharmacists – to name a few”.

“An example of this is having pharmacists working in GP practices, where they can add great value to patient outcomes, and to the services being offered to patients,” Society President Grant Kardachi said.

The AMA is currently conducting a survey of GP members to gauge interest in, and concerns about, the integration of non-dispensing pharmacists with general practices. The survey can be found at: survey/pharmacists-general-practice-survey.

The pharmacy sector’s claims about the heavy burden being borne by pharmacists as a result of price disclosure have been contradicted by consumer groups including the Consumers Health Forum and CHOICE, who argued that, despite the pricing regime, Australian patients continued to pay some of the highest prices in the world for some medicines.

Prominent health economist Professor Stephen Duckett, Director of the Grattan Institute’s Health Program, released a report last year claiming taxpayers were over-paying $1.3 billion a year on medicines because of poor deals struck by the Government with manufacturers.

Adrian Rollins