Don’t expect your friendly local pharmacist to continue to offer a range of free services, such as blood pressure checks and medicine deliveries, after the federal government’s 60-day dispensing policy takes effect next month.
Pharmacists say they will have to overhaul their operations and make critical changes in response to an anticipated decrease in profit.
The CommBank Pharmacy Insights 2023 report, produced in association with the University of Technology Sydney and IQVIA, says that in November 2022 the annual UTS Community Pharmacy Barometer Index was at its highest point in more than 10 years, reaching 146.8 out of 200. But confidence fell sharply in May 2023, to a decade low of 60.8 out of 200, “as community pharmacies weighed uncertainty and the prospect of lower earnings, when dispensing rules come into effect from September 2023”.
CommBank Health chief Albert Naffah said: “Many are considering whether keeping their workforce and opening hours intact is financially viable, while others are still grappling with shortages.”
Sydney pharmacy owner Quinn On told The Australian: “Many pharmacies do free deliveries of medication for their regulars and elderly patients, and that won’t happen anymore after 60-day dispensing.
“We are having lots of meetings about how we can mitigate the impact of 60-days dispensing; we’re doing everything we can.”
Wound dressing and blood pressure checks would no longer be provided free, he said. Blood pressure checks would attract a $10 to $15 charge.
Mr On said he employed a midwife for 4.5 hours a week to weigh babies and advise new mums. “I get a line-up of people every Friday morning … I am now looking at [whether] can I continue to provide that service.”
Dispensing policy savings
The new dispensing policy, which will be introduced in three stages over the next 12 months, will allow 60 days’ worth of 320 common medications to be prescribed for the price of one PBS co-payment. It cleared the Senate last week despite a Coalition attempt to block it, and formally comes into effect next month.
The government says that when a PBS medicine can be prescribed for 60 days, patients can save up to $180 a year, per medicine, for general patients and up to $43.80 a year, per medicine, for concession card holders.
Patients are expected to save more than $1.6 billion over the next four years, with some patients halving their annual PBS medicine costs, the government says.
“A patient taking only medicines that have a 60-day prescription can halve their number of trips to the doctor and pharmacist to fill a script for that medicine. This will free up millions of GP visits and make it easier to see a doctor.”
Monash Business School Professor Anthony Scott said moving to 60-day prescriptions clearly benefitted patients.
“It has strong community support and it is backed by evidence,” he said. “Without a 60-day prescription service, patients’ health outcomes will be worse, out-of-pocket costs will be higher, and patients with long-term chronic diseases will be hit the most.”
Pharmacists fighting back
Pharmacists marched in Sydney on Thursday in protest at the 60-day dispensing policy – an action organised by grassroots pharmacy owners independent of the Pharmacy Guild, which has been campaigning against the change.
Pharmacy Guild president Trent Twomey said the CommBank report confirmed many of the guild’s fears that patients would be forced to pay for pharmacy services that were previously free.
“For months we have been sounding the alarm on behalf of patients and pharmacists and unfortunately this Commonwealth Bank report has again confirmed our worst fears,” he said.
“All pharmacists want cheaper medicine for their patients and we are ready, willing and able to sit down with the government and make sensible adjustments to the policy so patients, aged care residents and pharmacists aren’t negatively impacted.”
Pharmacists’ traditional business model of relying on prescription dispensing revenue has been further disrupted by a surge in online pharmacies and discount prescription services. Brick-and-mortar pharmacies fought back by diversifying their offerings and investing in value-added services to stay competitive. Those added extras now look doomed.
You can find the full list of medicines that will come under the 60-day policy here.
Have your followed the debate about 60-day dispensing? Will the new policy save you money? Do you take advantage of pharmacies’ free services? Share your views in the comments section below.