Is the crossbench wobbling on double dispensing?

6 minute read

With Senate Estimates starting tomorrow, the Pharmacy Guild is working hard to win parliamentarians over.

The federal government’s plan to introduce 60-day dispensing from September may not be the fait accompli they are banking on, with speculation that the crossbenches are being lobbied hard by the Pharmacy Guild on the eve of health and aged care Senate Estimates hearings.

One well placed GP advocate told TMR this week that the message from the parliamentary crossbenches was “changing” from support to “a different message”.

A TMR ringaround has confirmed a distinct ambivalence about the reform, as well as active lobbying from the pharmacy business peak body.

Most concerning for the government would seem to be the evolving position of the Greens. Health spokesman Jordan Steele-John’s office told TMR:“The Australian Greens are determining their position on the 60-day prescribing changes proposed by the government. Senator Steele-John has spoken with pharmacist and consumer advocates about the change,” said the senator’s spokeswoman by email.

Also surprising was the response from Senator David Pocock, who is holding a meeting with a delegation of pharmacy owners from the ACT tomorrow (Thursday) to “discuss the potential impacts of the policy on community pharmacies, and to understand whether further details may be needed to support the implementation of changes”.

“Fundamentally, we do need to be doing more to free up GP time and to make medicines more affordable for patients,” Senator Pocock told TMR.

“I have some further questions on the 60-day-dispensing policy and how it may impact pharmacies in the ACT, so I’ll be working through those with the government, pharmacies and other stakeholders in the coming weeks.”

In the House of Representatives, flamboyant member for Kennedy in far northwest Queensland Bob Katter told TMR he had been “inundated” with calls from concerned pharmacists.

“I’ve been liaising with an arm of the Pharmacy Guild that deals with rural, remote and regional chemists and we’ve been in talks with the minister to ensure these pharmacies and their patients are not adversely impacted,” Mr Katter said.

“While I see the value in streamlining the process from a GP perspective, we can’t have these essential businesses in our small, rural and remote communities unfairly disadvantaged.”

Independent MP for North Sydney, Kylea Tink said the impacts were “far more complex that the Government is acknowledging”.

“North Sydney pharmacists are concerned the government’s planned re-investment will not compensate for the direct financial loss they face as small businesses.”

A spokesperson for One Nation leader Senator Pauline Hanson said Ms Hanson was “consulting with stakeholders and constituents to inform her position, which she is reserving until her consultations are complete”.

“A key stakeholder is the Pharmacy Guild of Australia, which I can confirm has been in contact with our office over the issue,” said the spokesperson.

Her One Nation colleague Senator Malcolm Roberts was the most positive of the crossbenchers approached by TMR.

“The move to allow 60-day prescribing appears completely reasonable to allow patients cheaper access to their prescriptions,” he said.

Senator Roberts said he would not be swayed by any lobbying from any stakeholder.

“We’re open to listening to any stakeholders but our views are always based on the merit of the changes being proposed. These changes appear to have great merit.”

He said he supported the double-dispensing proposal “in principle” but his support was “subject to what form the legislation takes when it comes before the Senate when we will make our final decision provided it properly reflects the proposal”.

Controversial independent Senator Lidia Thorpe confirmed she had been approached by the Guild, among other “stakeholders” including industry representatives and consumer health groups.

“Access to affordable medicines and universal health coverage is a basic human right, and not a means for corporate profiteering,” Senator Thorpe told TMR.

“Unfortunately, affordability is still a significant barrier to medicines and healthcare for many people in Australia, including those on low incomes and First Nations people.

“I am consulting with the government and stakeholders to ensure that the savings from this scheme are properly invested to ensure accessibility to medicines is improved while maintaining the viability of the community pharmacy sector, particularly in regional and remote areas.”

Rebekha Sharkie, Central Alliance member for Mayo, said she was concerned pharmacies in her electorate would be “negatively impacted”.

“I support 60-day prescribing in principle and the financial benefit for patients, but I’m very concerned regarding the impact on regional and rural communities if the change were to result in a reduction of pharmacists’ services and/or closures,” she said.

“Cheaper medicines are not cheaper if they require a $90 taxi fare to the chemist due to limited access. Mayo communities have already lost emergency departments in local hospitals, as well as a number of regional GPs over recent years. The last thing they need is the closure of pharmacists, as the only remaining health services in some rural and regional towns.

“I have communicated my concerns to the Minister for Health and Aged Care and shared correspondence and reports from a number of pharmacists in my electorate with them too.

“I am keen to ensure that proposed increases in the Rural Pharmacy Maintenance Allowance and other initiatives will ensure the ongoing financial viability of pharmacists in regional, rural and remote locations in her electorate and elsewhere.  

“There is no point in making medicines cheaper if the place that dispenses them will no longer be open due to the funding cuts for dispensing medicines.”

Indi MP Dr Helen Haines has a background in nursing and rural health. She told TMR that she had met with 15 pharmacists from across her electorate.

“It was a constructive discussion about the ways in which policies around pharmacy and medication dispensing generally affect the valuable community work pharmacists do, especially with our elderly residents,” she said.

“The pharmacists who I met with committed to write to Health Minister Butler to outline their concerns and I will ensure that letter is received by the Minister.”

Paediatrician-turned-independent member for Kooyong Dr Monique Ryan has been an advocate for the 60-day dispensing proposal all along, and her position seems unchanged. Eight days ago in parliament she reiterated her support, saying she was “proud to have effectively advocated for this important change”.

“It will reduce the need for routine GP visits, it will decrease pharmacy visits for repeat dispensing of medicines, and it will lessen the cost of medicines for those people with longstanding medical conditions,” she said.

“We have to continuously critically review all aspects of our healthcare delivery to improve both cost-effectiveness and quality of care in all parts of the system.”

WA independent MP Kate Chaney declined to comment.

Dr Sophie Scamps, GP and independent member for Mackellar, has been quiet on the 60-day dispensing proposal with her parliamentary speeches and press releases concentrating on environmental issues. In a submission to the Select Committee inquiry on cost of living pressures, she focused on bulk billing and Medicare rebates as areas needing government attention.

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