Are discount pharmacies the new Uber?

A Chemist Warehouse storefront. Image: AJP.

The Guild’s Anthony Tassone says a former ACCC chief is doing Chemist Warehouse’s bidding by publicly criticising pharmacy rules

The latest stakeholder to take to the mainstream media to call for a relaxing of the location and ownership rules is Graeme Samuel, who was formerly the head of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission and is now an academic at Monash University.

A story appearing Thursday in Fairfax Media reported that Mr Samuel believes Australians are paying significantly more than they should be for PBS medicines because of “anti-competitive regulations” in pharmacy.

“Pharmacists have been protected for so long, they’re the most powerful union in Australia,” he told reporter Dana McCauley.

He was responding to a recent call by Chemist Warehouse chief operating officer Mario Tascone, also in Fairfax media, and convenience store spokesman Jeff Rogut, to loosen the regulations.

Mr Samuel said that no PBS medicine should be dispensed without a fully qualified pharmacist – but that “once you’ve got that rule in place, nothing else is needed to protect the consumer”.

Mr Samuel said he is a frequent customer of discount pharmacies, without naming any particular chain.

“I’ve never had a question not answered and they always give advice,” he said

“They’ll all say three things: ‘have you had this before?’, ‘do you mind generic instead of branded?’ and ‘take this with food three times a day and don’t drink alcohol with it, you won’t be able to drive’.”

He told Ms McCauley that discount pharmacies were the new Uber, and that like the ride-sharing company, they should be permitted to operate as this would benefit consumers.

In country towns, discounters could also provide a mixed offer which could include services such as a Post Office or bank, he suggested.

“Provided there is a fundamental obligation that chemist-only medicines, including PBS scripts, can only be dispensed by a qualified and registered pharmacist, a discount pharmacist can be expected to establish itself in a regional town, supplying not only pharmacy services, but also [these] other services,” he said.

“A discount pharmacy, with its innovative culture has the potential to provide a regional town more services than are currently available, more choice of product—and at lower prices.”

This is not the first time Mr Samuel has called for such changes: in June 2019 he spoke to News Corp media and the ABC and urged the Government to scrap the location and ownership rules.

The Pharmacy Guild’s Victorian branch president, Anthony Tassone, was critical of the new remarks.

“It’s interesting to see Mr Samuel (repeatedly) publicly wave the flag and do the bidding for his old walking buddy Jack Gance,” he told the AJP. Mr Gance, alongside Mario Verrochi, is the co-owner of the My Chemist group, which includes the Chemist Warehouse banner.

“You can never underestimate the importance of friends,” Mr Tassone said.

“The calls for deregulation by Chemist Warehouse look like a poorly disguised exit strategy keeping options open to sell out to the highest bidder.

“I couldn’t tell you the number of times I’ve been asked by members of the public to match the price of Chemist Warehouse, but I’ve never been asked to match their level of service or care.

“I also couldn’t tell you the number of times I’ve been asked for advice by people who have shopped or purchased something from Chemist Warehouse but then sought advice from me or my team. I’ve also lost count of the number of times I’ve anecdotally heard the same from my pharmacist colleagues.

“So when Mario Tascone claims the government is ‘propping up pharmacies’ with the current regulation my question is who is propping up whom being sought after for advice when medicines have been received elsewhere?”

He also said that Mr Samuel’s comments about Australian community pharmacies being responsible for patients paying too much for PBS medicines lack an evidence base.

“It also ignores the fact that most prescriptions dispensed in Australia attract a PBS subsidy with community pharmacies largely being price takers not price makers,” Mr Tassone said.

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