‘Bile and abuse’ against pharmacists: Tambassis responds

George Tambassis

Around Australia, hard-working pharmacists woke up this morning (18 March) to be kicked in the guts by a totally unwarranted torrent of bile and abuse from Janet Albrechtsen, writes George Tambassis, president of the Pharmacy Guild of Australia.

People whose only sin is to go to work every day to serve their patients and their local communities to the very best of their ability woke up to be told that what they do provides “no discernible benefit to consumers.”

People who have mortgaged their homes to build a small business and employ people were told they were “part of a protection racket” and a “cartel”.

People who are struggling to keep their pharmacies afloat and keep their doors open because of massive government cuts, were told that they “remain exempt from the realities of the market.”

People who deliver medicines in the middle of the night to keep frail nursing home patients out of hospital or even to people’s homes on Christmas Day without any payment or recognition, were told they are “greedy” and are “vested interests gouging the public purse”.

However, the tens of thousands of good men and women in community pharmacy can be comforted that no amount of cheap name calling and abuse can ever substitute for the facts.

Yes, there are regulations – called location rules – that ensure that pharmacies are equitably distributed around Australia and do not cluster, like doctors’ surgeries in affluent inner suburbs, at the expense of the poor and the sick in disadvantaged and rural communities.

Last year, a national geo-spatial analysis conducted by MacroPlan Dimasis found that pharmacies are more accessible than supermarkets, banks and medical centres, including for the elderly (less mobile) and low socio-economic communities.

The analysis found that pharmacy access, including in regional areas, provides a high degree of choice for consumers.

Most importantly, this very high level of accessibility is achieved at a significantly lower ‘bricks and mortar’ cost than the other services as a direct result of the location rules.

Ms Albrechtsen dislikes pharmacies being owned by pharmacists and is determined to hand them over to the supermarket duopoly, those well-known bastions of competition who will never have a skerrick of credibility in healthcare as long as they continue to profit from selling cigarettes.

However, she is in a very small minority. Time and again, consumer surveys find that the customer satisfaction ratings of pharmacies exceed 90%t. Pharmacists are always in the top handful of most trust professions and, dare I say, at the opposite end of the scale to journalists. Certainly, not the result one would expect for people that are “rotten” and “gouging” and put their own self-interest over “customers and taxpayers”.

Late last year, as part of its submission to the Competition Policy Review, the Guild commissioned the Institute for Choice at the University of Adelaide to undertake a qualitative survey of consumer preferences for community pharmacy relative to alternative models of service delivery.

This analysis confirmed that 89% of consumers trust their local pharmacists very highly or completely. Two-thirds of respondents supported the principle that professionals like pharmacists should own the businesses they work in. There was a stark contrast between pharmacies and supermarkets in terms of trust, quality of service and managing patients’ health information.

A cost-benefit analysis, based on empirical evidence and conducted by Professor Henry Ergas and his team, showed conclusively that repealing the rules around pharmacy would massively reduce community welfare by up to $726 million.

It is particularly galling for pharmacies to wake up to Ms Albrechtsen’s column at a time when pharmacy businesses are under more financial stress than ever before, due predominantly to huge cuts in PBS remuneration.

Pharmacies are facing an average reduction in their bottom line of around $90,000 this financial year because of these cuts – which are ongoing – forcing many to reduce opening hours, curtail services and shed staff.

Peter Saccasan, a chartered accountant specialising in the pharmacy industry wrote this week: “Most owners make a return that is no different or earned from any less hard work than the thousands of other small businesses that employ people and who look after their local communities.”

Ms Albrechtsen is entitled to her opinion, no matter how ill-informed and prejudiced, but she is not entitled to outright errors.

It is incorrect to claim the Guild received $5.8 million to “fund its communications strategy.” The funding referred to was directed exclusively to support the Agreement programs, with the express authority and supervision of the Department of Health.

She also relied on the ANAO report to claim that the Guild was paid $29 million to administer professional programs worth $67.5 million. “At 43 per cent, that’s a nice little earner,” she said. In fact, total administration costs allocated to the Guild amounted to 3 per cent which is well below the accepted administrative cost ratio across government departments generally.

These errors need to be corrected if Ms Albrechtsen has any journalistic integrity.

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