Who benefits from health care?


Anthony Tassone refutes article that labels the Guild and AMA as Australia’s “biggest, ugliest and most militant unions” 

A recent article in The Spectator by Stephen Spartacus asked, “Who benefits from health care” and then goes on to suggest that it’s the “biggest, ugliest and most militant unions in Australia” which he claims to be the Pharmacy Guild, the Australian Medical Association and specialist colleges – in other words the usual suspects and easy targets when seeking to attack the representatives of health professionals.

I don’t presume to speak on behalf of the AMA or the colleges, but I can certainly disavow Spartacus of his misguided notions about community pharmacies and their role in the health system of Australia.

First up he asserts that it is “not obvious who sets health care policy in Australia and it’s not obvious for whose benefit it even is”.

A little research would have revealed that policy is set by the Government and bureaucracy but groups, such as those he has chosen to name, provide specialist and expert input. This system, a feature of the democratic process, ensures the best possible policy decisions are made.

Of course, they are not always perfect, and flaws can appear, but I shudder to imagine what decisions would be made without input from those who know what they are talking about and represent the very health professionals who care for patients every day.

Spartacus claims groups like the Guild are only interested in increasing the wages and conditions of our members and I unashamedly agree that we do seek to ensure our members have good wages and conditions.

Australia’s 5700+ community pharmacies are small businesses and need to operate in an environment that enables them to run their practices sustainably.  If they can’t, they close – and the communities they serve suffer.

A reduction in competition?

Getting a head of steam up Spartacus accuses the Guild of reducing competition. It is a laughable assertion which again displays lack of research or understanding of the sector. With over 5700 individually owned community pharmacies with over 4000 different individual proprietors you can hardly claim there is a lack of competition when compared to the duopolies and oligopolies that pervade in deregulated markets such as: supermarkets, petrol and liquor

I agree to some extent when he says pharmacists are public servants, but only to the degree that they dispense PBS medicines which form the basis of the Government’s medicine policy. The PBS is the gold standard internationally for medicines accessibility and this accessibility is only enabled by the broad spread of the community pharmacy network across the whole country, and the close corporation and collaboration between the Guild and the Government.

This co-operation has also enabled the Government to save billions of dollars in health costs over the past decade, particularly through price reductions to subsidised medicines through the ‘PBS price disclosure policy’.  This policy has helped contain costs of medicines for the Australian taxpayer and create headroom for the listing of new and often expensive potentially life-saving therapies. 

Such economic efficiencies whilst maintaining a high stand of service delivery within community pharmacy simply has not been seen in other parts of our economy let alone health care.

This has all been as part of a partnership between the Guild and the Australian government, as the Guild strives to help it secure a viable and sustainable medicines and health system.

Printing money

Being a pharmacist is not, as Spartacus claims, a licence to print money. It’s disappointing that he has dug up the mantra of some ill-informed commentators of the ‘60s, and if he bothered to check the data, he would see that community pharmacists’ average annual wage is anything but excessive – and for it they work extended hours and on weekends because that is when many patients need their pharmacist.

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, it was pharmacies that kept their doors open and were there for their patients when they needed help, care and reassurance the most. 

All the while the Guild never called for any lockdown – but worked tirelessly to ensure our members were kept abreast with their obligations and other updates from health authorities to keep their patients safe and for access to care to continue. 

This is all an inconvenient truth for the likes of Spartacus.

One of his most absurd claims is: “When questions come up of foreign doctors and pharmacists, what is the general reply? No ticket, no start.”

If only he was aware from the most basic online search which would show that the Guild is very actively seeking to expand the Skilled Occupation List to include pharmacists for overseas skilled migration due to very concerning and dire shortages across the country. We are doing this to open the way for foreign trained pharmacists to seek employment in Australia. Oops, zero out of 10 on that one, Spartacus.

Did the Guild go ‘nutso’?

He also says the Guild went ‘nutso’ when the supermarkets wanted to go into the pharmacy business. Yes, we did and still do oppose moves by supermarkets to open pharmacies primarily on the basis that there would vastly decreased access for patients, particularly in regional, rural and remote areas.

Supermarkets that are owned by publicly listed companies answer to shareholders first and foremost.  If Spartacus wants to know ‘Who benefits from healthcare?’ it certainly isn’t in the aisles of supermarkets whose high profit drivers are potentially deadly tobacco products.

Pharmacists on the other hand as owners of their practices answer to their patients and are accountable to their registration board. 

Community pharmacies, on the other hand, are very accessible. In capital cities, 97 per cent of people have access to at least one pharmacy within a 2.5km radius, while in the rest of Australia 66 per cent of people are within 2.5km of a pharmacy.

So, Who really benefits from health care? All Australians do.

Anthony Tassone is Victorian Branch President and a National Councillor of the Pharmacy Guild of Australia

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7 Comments

  1. Sean
    14/07/2021

    Being a pharmacist is not, as Spartacus claims, a licence to print
    money. It’s disappointing that he has dug up the mantra of some
    ill-informed commentators of the ‘60s, and if he bothered to check the
    data, he would see that community pharmacists’ average annual wage is
    anything but excessive

    Anthony Tassone, the president of the same organisation that has fought tooth and nail to suppress wage growth for employee pharmacists, seemingly takes pride in the humble salaries of most community pharmacists.

    Federal funding for community pharmacies has increased substantially with each successive CPA, and yet employee pharmacists’ wages (who make up the vast majority of the workforce) have barely even budged since the mid 90s. So where is the money going? I would hazard a guess that a fair chunk of it is ending up in Toorak mansions.

    I seriously cannot believe that Tassone is using the low wages of employee pharmacists to deflect criticism of the community pharmacy industry. I’ve noticed that the Pharmacy Guild conspicuously avoids mentioning in these press releases that its members are exclusively pharmacy OWNERS. When it suits them to pretend that they’re modestly paid, salt-of-the earth battlers who provide pharmacy services out of love for their communities they can point to the salaries of employee pharmacists that they’ve fought to suppress.

    EDIT – I mistakenly referred to Anthony Tassone as the president of the Pharmacy Guild, he is in fact the president of the Victorian branch, not the national president.

    • Andrew
      14/07/2021

      It’s right there in Anthony’s response; the guild represents 4000 people/entities. Their stated aim is to first and foremost promote their interests, a significant number of whom have no day to day involvement in the provision of health services.
      With regards to the “license to print money”; the owners on average do pretty darn well. Just a few years ago there was an extended interview with a well-known owner who said he was taking home $300k a year from his single pharmacy and had moved residence to a nicer part of town.

      • Sean
        14/07/2021

        It’s obvious to us in the industry who know that there’s 35,000 pharmacists registered with AHPRA that the Guild only represents the interests of ~11% of the workforce, but I don’t think the average Spectator reader knows that. It definitely benefits the Guild to never call attention to that fact, since they can hide behind the $38/hr median pharmacist rate whenever someone from the lay press questions their antics.

        • Michael Post
          14/07/2021

          I just don’t understand why 30000 employee pharmacists quietly abide a non representative employers organisation calling all the pharmacy industry shots. This employer organisation proudly acts to suppress employee pharmacist wages and inhibits professional independence via location rule advocacy.
          Like a circus elephant with its leg tethered to a small rope and peg, employees are so beaten down they don’t know their own strength in numbers should they choose not to be oppressed.

          • Paul Sapardanis
            14/07/2021

            Why doesn’t the union rep ever reply? Dr. March needs to respond to these articles

    • TALL POPPY
      14/07/2021

      Ownership *IS* the way to make BIG $$$; especially as a non-working owner! A well-run pharmacy of modest turnover can net $500k EBITDA. Then you can add on capital gains as the business grows with huge tax benefits on sale!

      Why do you think pharmacy ownership is so well protected…the resultant lifestyle/work balance and powerplay income is potentially excellent.

  2. Andrew
    15/07/2021

    Cui bono. Apply this to any aspect of the pharmacy industry and it’s owners and industry first, consumers and public health second.

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