‘Fluctuations’ in supply impacting pharmacies

Small and rural pharmacies say they are still grappling with medicines shortages, but wholesalers maintain medicines have been distributed fairly and equitably where possible

As small pharmacy owners express frustration at continuing issues in accessing medicines, the TGA has blamed stockpiling of medicines for hundreds of “stock-outs”, PharmaDispatch reported this week.

Higher-than-usual demand for many medicines has resulted in pharmacies and wholesalers reporting numerous product lines being out of stock. These are not national shortages but rather temporary, local-level out of stocks due to stockpiling of medicines, the TGA has advised.

The Small Pharmacies Group (SPG) argues any debate over whether the supply issues should be classified as shortages or ‘stock outs’ is irrelevant.

“An ‘out of stock’ may or may not be the result of a critical medicine shortage, but what is the difference from the patient’s perspective if they cannot get the medicine they need at their local pharmacy?” an SPG spokesperson said in a recent statement.

SPG says it ran a poll last week with over 96% of 57 respondents reporting that they are still having trouble obtaining PBS medicines with numerous out of stocks and items on backorder.

“Community pharmacists are – after all – the people who actually deliver the PBS to consumers. We have a pretty good idea of what constitutes a ‘shortage’,” said the SPG spokesperson.

rural Australia
Rural communities have been hit hard by medicines shortages, says SPG.

“The fact is that small and rural pharmacies are still feeling the ripple effects of bulk buying by large pharmacy players back in early March and no longer have any confidence that anyone really has a handle on the stock situation let alone that it is being managed in an equitable manner.”

Small and rural pharmacies are reporting problems obtaining medications such as Ventolin, Seretide and Symbicort despite reports that the number of patients that were dispensed a respiratory medicine doubled in the first of week of April 2020 compared to the same time last year.

“Is anyone asking which pharmacies dispensed the 200,000 extra, i.e. was there equitable distribution across the country, and whether rural patients actually received the medications that were dispensed?” asks SPG.

The supply chain has been experiencing extraordinary demand and pressure due to COVID-19, the National Pharmaceutical Services Association (NPSA) Chairman Mark Hooper told AJP.

NPSA is the peak organisation representing full-line pharmaceutical wholesalers in Australia, including Sigma Healthcare, Symbion, NPD (National Pharmacies) and Australian Pharmaceutical Industries.

“There are shortages of certain medicines and fluctuations in supply which are being constructively managed. All stakeholders in the industry are working to address these issues,” said Mr Hooper in response to SPG’s release.

“Like all international jurisdictions, Australia is feeling the effects of unprecedented international freight disruption.”

While SPG argues that equity of access to essential PBS medicines has “gone out the window”, NPSA disagrees. 

“When a medicine is in stock and available to wholesalers, orders are being filled promptly and medicines distributed fairly and equitably,” said Mr Hooper.

He added that NPSA has been working with the government, the TGA, pharmaceutical companies and the Pharmacy Guild of Australia “to address circumstances that have never been encountered before”.

“In early March following panic buying and a surge in demand, the NPSA was proactive in initiating adjustments to the CSO Deeds and implementing measures to help manage the volatile early response to the pandemic and preserve medicine availability,” he said.

Meanwhile recent ACCC authorisation allowing members to work collaboratively to manage supply chain issues, and government-supported restrictions on some medicines have helped ensure that medicines in high demand are not stockpiled “but are available to distribute equitably across the community to those who need them most, including small and rural pharmacies,” said Mr Hooper.

NPSA members “appreciate the hard work and dedication of small and rural pharmacy and the difficulties faced when a medicine is in short supply, especially when there is no nearby pharmacy to fill any gaps in stock to meet patient need,” he added.

“Their needs are clearly understood, and the changes advocated and adopted by wholesalers reinforce that.”

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