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.
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