Pharmacy ownership rules defy logic: RACGP

5 minute read

The AMA and the RACGP slam proposed new pharmacy ownership laws, amid suggestions of potential harms to Indigenous Australians.

The RACGP and AMA are calling for the Pharmacy Business Ownership Bill 2023 to be scrapped, arguing that it values pharmacy profits over patient health. 

AMA Queensland has gone so far as to raise the matter with the Crime and Corruption Commission.  

State Health Minister Shannon Fentiman introduced the Pharmacy Business Ownership Bill 2023 to parliament in November 2023, following years of lobbying spearheaded by the Pharmacy Guild

Currently, the Pharmacy Business Ownership Act 2001 decrees that only a pharmacist, or an entity owned by a pharmacist, can own a pharmacy and limits the number of pharmacies each pharmacist or entity can own. 

The new bill proposes to maintain the limit on the number of pharmacy businesses one person can own and prohibit “inappropriate” third-party control over pharmacy services. 

It also proposes the introduction of a pharmacy ownership regulatory council to enforce the regulations, taking over from Queensland Health. 

On 8 March, following a public inquiry, the Cost of Living and Economics Committee tabled a report recommending full parliamentary support for the bill. 

Many, including the AMA, the RACGP and the Productivity Commission, have raised serious concerns. 

A considerable gripe, raised by all parties, was the highly uncompetitive nature of the laws. 

According to the AMA Queensland the proposed ownership laws are not only anti-competitive but will hinder the Closing the Gap initiative by blocking Aboriginal health centres from owning pharmacies. 

“It is outrageous that the Queensland Government is completely disregarding its own Closing the Gap commitments with these unnecessary, anti-competitive regulations that only serve to entrench the power of existing pharmacy owners,” said AMA Queensland President Dr Maria Boulton. 

“This bill should be rejected entirely.  

“At the very least, Aboriginal health services should have been exempted.” 

Dr Boulton expressed her “bitter disappointment” in the Cost of Living and Economics Committee, which disregarded the advice of the AMA Queensland, RACGP, Productivity Commission and the Queensland Aboriginal and Islander Health Council. 

“First Nations Queenslanders should be able to fill prescriptions and receive medication advice in a culturally safe way,” she said. 

“Pharmacies owned by the community-controlled sector will be driven by a team-based approach, not by profit.” 

Pharmacy is the only sector in healthcare with such ownership rules, added Dr Boulton, meaning “a pharmacist can own a general practice or a dental surgery, but GPs and dentists cannot own a pharmacy”. 

She also expressed frustration at the “secrecy” around the bill, which was “negotiated behind closed doors with select stakeholders bound by confidentiality agreements”. 

“We have raised our concerns about how this bill was developed with the Crime and Corruption Commission.” 

Speaking to ABC Radio Brisbane, AMA Queensland vice president Dr Nick Yim said that the AMA Queensland and RACGP’s invitations to participate in the drafting of the bill were apparently “lost in the mail”. 

“If [legislation] affects the whole community, [negotiation] needs to be within open doors, not behind closed doors where certain powerful lobbyists and political donors are in the room,” he added. 

According to Dr Boulton, the Guild has gotten its way in more ways than one. 

Namely, the newly formed council to regulate pharmacy owners which will absorb the responsibility from Queensland Health if the bill passes. 

“The sole reason for this new council seems to be because pharmacy owner lobby groups wanted it,” she said. 

“There is no evidence it will provide greater community safety – or that community safety is at risk in the first place – or be more cost-effective. 

“The Queensland Government must explain why it has put the wishes of powerful lobbyists ahead of the healthcare outcomes of First Nations Queenslanders.” 

The RACGP has echoed the AMA’s concerns, arguing that the ownership rules also lacked an evidence base. 

“In its evidence to the Parliamentary Inquiry, the [Productivity] Commission noted it was unaware of any evidence that the ownership rules improve outcomes for consumers relative to the ownership structures that exist in other parts of the primary health system,” said RACGP Queensland chair Dr Cathryn Hester. 

“Despite this, the Government’s bill will maintain the status quo, and that is not good enough.” 

Dr Hester said the bill protects large corporate pharmacists “who already own their patch” and will “continue to stifle competition”. 

“If the government is serious about addressing high cost of living pressures across the state they will choose to put downward pressure on the cost of vital medicines through competition,” she said. 

“Not acting will force people to make heartbreaking choices between putting food on the table, filling up the car, or buying medicines for chronic conditions.” 

The ownership regulations defy logic and disproportionately weight the claims of the Guild, said Dr Hester. 

“Enough is enough, we need change to put Aussie consumers first.” 

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