Symbion hits back at media claims of price gouging, while the Guild’s George Tambassis reminds pharmacists that the sector is under the spotlight thanks to the novel coronavirus
TerryWhite Chemmart is now investigating claims made in the media about some of its pharmacies’ response to coronavirus concerns, the banner group said in a joint statement with Symbion.
While for several days newspapers including the Daily Mail and Fairfax papers have claimed that some pharmacies have “jacked up” the prices of masks as well as hand sanitiser, a stronger response followed the airing of a segment on A Current Affair Thursday night.
Host Tracy Grimshaw noted, in introducing the segment, that “demand for face masks has peaked during the coronavirus epidemic and prices have also surged – there are claims some pharmacies are gouging customers”.
An A Current Affair reporter visited a Sydney pharmacy where boxes of surgical masks were being sold for $399, and a TerryWhite Chemmart in Brisbane which was allegedly advertising boxes of masks for $150, via community Facebook pages.
“With people baulking at the price, he remarks, ‘I didn’t tell the Chinese to eat raw bats’,” the reporter said.
“We then checked in-store, where the price has jumped up again to $200 a box.
“The franchisee owns four Chemmart chemists. We visited the others and got similar responses… staff claiming it’s due to the wholesaler hiking their prices.”
One staff member claimed the wholesaler had increased the price by 300%; however A Current Affair said that an invoice leaked to the program by “disgruntled staff” showed the owner paid $11 for a box of 50 on 31 January.
Another consumer claimed that a box of 12 P2 masks after two confirmed cases in Adelaide, at a Terry White Market Plaza Chemist for $500.
When A Current Affair called this pharmacy, a staff member replied, “P2 mask which is in America they call N95, is selling for $35”… they’re not cheap, yeah”.
Symbion and TerryWhite Chemmart said that the organisations are “Aware of a report on Thursday night’s A Current Affair (6 February 2020) which included allegations of inflated prices being charged for protective face masks at certain pharmacies”.
“TerryWhite Chemmart management is disturbed by the issues raised in this story and has commenced its own investigations.
“From a Symbion perspective, we also refute the suggestion made in the story that wholesalers were responsible for the increases.
“As was correctly reported by A Current Affair by reproduction of an invoice, those claims are categorically incorrect.”
Pharmaceutical Society of Australia national president Associate Professor Christopher Freeman also appeared on A Current Affair, where he made similar comments to those provided to the AJP on Thursday.
“Unfortunately there have been a very few examples of where people have tried to take a view where they would profit in the short term over this current situation, and then ignoring the longer term health risk that poses when there is a short supply of masks and people do genuinely need them,” A/Prof Freeman had told the AJP.
“We’ve provided some quite strong advice to the profession that they should take the masks and put them behind the counter so they can better inform customers about whether they actually need a mask.
“The current advice is that the general public don’t need to be wearing a mask at this point in time, and won’t reduce the risk of infection from coronavirus.”
Pharmacy Guild of Australia national president George Tambassis noted in a message to members on Friday that “A story on the Channel Nine program A Current Affair last night pointed the finger at some pharmacies for significant retail price increases for face masks”.
“I have seen direct evidence of unconscionable increases in wholesale mask prices from some non-pharmacy suppliers, making it quite unfair to point the finger at pharmacies,” Mr Tambassis noted.
“However, it also needs to be said that pharmacies are under the public and media spotlight at the moment so we all need to be ensuring we act in the best interests of our patients, including through a fair and ethical approach to pricing such products.
“Our reputation depends on it.”
Mr Tambassis said the large numbers of Australians looking for hand sanitisers and face masks was putting pressure on staff and on stock levels, with supplies becoming erratic – and in some cases “this surge in demand has seen the wholesale price of face masks from some non-pharmacy wholesalers rise sharply, leading to very high retail prices which have drawn criticism of pharmacy in social and mainstream media”.
He reiterated Chief Medical Officer Professor Brendan Murphy’s advice that in most cases, there is no need for Australians to wear masks, except for those who are unwell.