‘Even by Canberra standards, it’s been a long review.’


Chris Bowen addresses the 2019 Pharmacy Guild Parliamentary Dinner.
Chris Bowen addresses the 2019 Pharmacy Guild Parliamentary Dinner.

The controversial dollar discount has not worked as the Government intended, Opposition health spokesperson Chris Bowen has said

Addressing the Pharmacy Guild’s Parliamentary Dinner on Tuesday night, Mr Bowen tackled the subject of affordability of health care, saying that 961,000 Australians a year delay or avoid filling prescriptions due to cost.

“That undermines their health. It undermines your small businesses. And it contributes to the inequalities that undermine our society,” he said.

Women are 70% more likely than men to delay or avoid filling scripts, and people living in disadvantaged areas or those who have long term health conditions are twice as likely to skip scripts.

“Put simply, if you’re poorer or sicker, you are less likely to get the essential medicines you deserve,” he said.

“Of course, the Government’s response to this challenge in the 6CPA was the ‘dollar discount’.

“In 2016 we were told it was a landmark reform that would make medicines more affordable for all Australians.

“But by 2017, with take up rates of less than a third, the dollar discount was under review. Even by Canberra standards it’s been a long review.”

In the negotiations for the Seventh Community Pharmacy Agreement – which according to Health Minister Greg Hunt began on Wednesday – there is an opportunity to consider whether the dollar discount is the best way to improve affordability of medicines, Mr Bowen said.

“The evidence of the last four years would say not,” Mr Bowen told the audience.

“I know that the dollar discount has placed more pressure on the viability of some smaller pharmacies as other costs such as rent have certainly not been falling.

“But of course, the dollar discount should only be changed in a way that makes medicines more affordable, not more expensive.

“This should be a focus of the current negotiations.”

Mr Bowen also noted that the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee’s recommendation to double dispensing quantities for some medicines will also likely be discussed in the negotiations.

“Implementing the recommendation in the 2019 Budget would have been against the letter and spirit of the 6CPA.

“But, frankly no Government can simply ignore the recommendations of the independent PBAC. 

“Equally, the Government should not ignore the Guild’s advice that the recommendation would undermine both patient care and the viability of your small businesses.

“If the unintended consequence of the recommendation is the closure of some pharmacies – particularly in regional areas – then it will be harder, not easier, for patients to take prescribed medicines.

“I don’t pretend to have easy answers on either the ‘dollar discount’ or the PBAC’s recommendation.
Reaching compromise on both issues will require good will, creativity and I suspect some investment.

“The Government will have Labor’s strong support on anything it does to improve the affordability of medicines while strengthening community pharmacy.”

Mr Bowen also said that Labor feels pharmacists can work to their full scope of practice without fragmenting care – though what this full scope could look like is a question best answered by pharmacists and other health professions in collaboration, with Government experts.

He said he could not disagree more with describing these matters as a “cash grab” or “turf war”.

He said that as Labor considered policy questions around pharmacy, it would look at “not what’s good for pharmacists or what’s good for doctors. But what’s good for patients and the community”.

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