‘Muddle-headed phoney investigation’ into pharmacy got facts wrong, says Guild


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Prices quoted in a series of News Corp articles slamming community pharmacy were wrong, says the owner of one of the pharmacies targeted, as Chemist Warehouse slams the location rules

The Pharmacy Guild has said in a media statement that this week’s articles, by News Corp national health reporter Sue Dunlevy, constituted an attack on medicine pricing in community pharmacies which scored a “shameful trifecta – unethical, unfair and inaccurate”.

The articles concerned medicines pricing, and its variation between pharmacies.

They included tables of “top ten” drugs, sourced from Chemist Warehouse, with different prices listed for each at different pharmacies.

But at least one pharmacy owner says the price quoted at her pharmacy was wrong – and that she wants an apology.

Blooms the Chemist in Orange, NSW, was listed as charging $28.99 for two forms of amoxicillin 500mg.

However, the pharmacy’s actual listed price for the two forms is $9.99 and $11.95 respectively.

The News Corp “exclusive investigation” also mixed up the quantities of the medicine Cefalexin 250mg, comparing the price of 40 capsules at Blooms the Chemist Orange, with 20 capsules from other pharmacies.

The owner of Blooms the Chemist in Orange, Melanie Moses, said she was telephoned by a person seeking information about her medicine prices a couple of weeks ago. The caller did not identify himself as being a journalist, nor that they were from News Corp.

Ms Moses says that she is adamant that the caller asked for some medicine prices listed in the News Corp stories, but did not ask for the pharmacy’s price for any amoxicillin product.

An incorrect price was then published.

The Pharmacy Guild says that it has sighted sales evidence of the regular price of the medicines at the pharmacy.

The pharmacy is seeking a correction and an apology.

The Guild also confirmed on Tuesday that an incorrect price had been published in the South Australian version for atorvastatin at the Star Discount Chemist Welland, where the group says the price is $9.99, not the $13.99 quoted.

A spokesperson for the Pharmacy Guild called the News Corp series a “shemozzle”.

“If they are so wrong on three prices from one pharmacy, how reliable is the rest of the information in this muddle-headed phoney investigation?

“What sort of unethical, tawdry show are they running at News Corp?”

The Guild also says that “questions need to be asked” about “the conflict of interest and dubious ethics of News Corp spruiking the merits of one of its larger advertisers in the pharmacy sector.

“Across Australia, community pharmacies have gone above and beyond to serve patients during the COVID pandemic because they are connected to their communities and committed to the health needs of their patients. They shouldn’t be subjected to this kind of inaccurate and unfair attack based on shoddy research.”

On Tuesday, News Corp media published follow-up articles, including one in the Herald Sun’s Wyndham Leader which said patients in Melbourne’s west were paying up to four times more for medicines.

Rebecca DiNuzzo and Sue Dunlevy reportedly spoke to an anonymous pharmacist at a Footscray store who said small pharmacies had difficulty competing on price with “big discount chains such as Chemist Warehouse”.

The reporters referred to the location rules as “anti-competitive” and again quoted Chemist Warehouse’s Mario Tascone, who slammed these rules.

“They should be relabelled ‘stop Chemist Warehouse’ rules,” Mr Tascone said.

In another follow-up piece, Geoff Marsh, president of Professional Pharmacists Australia, also attacked the location rules, saying “When protection rackets for business are allowed to influence independent policy reviews in areas like medicine, we have a major problem”.

A third article claimed that discount pharmacies “rarely” add “all these charges” – the dispensing fee – to their prices when dispensing medicines to general patients.

This article offered advice to readers on “how to get a cheaper prescription,” listing suggestions such as “check out the cheapest medicine prices online at Chemist Warehouse, Your Discount Chemist, Pharmacy Online or other discount pharmacies and ask your local suburban pharmacist to match the price,” using a bricks-and-mortar discount pharmacy, or ordering medicine online “if you live in the bush or an area without a discount chemist”.

Meanwhile, a number of pharmacists spoke out on social media to discuss the original articles.

In a series of tweets, pharmacist at Wanniassa Capital Chemist in the ACT Alicia Martin explained why pharmacists charge dispensing fees.

“The blatant cost errors aside, the part of Sue’s article I take issue with is her description of dispensing fees being to pay for the pharmacist to pull stock off a shelf and label it. This is NOT what dispensing fees are for. Pharmacists are highly skilled medicines experts,” Ms Martin wrote.

“The dispensing process involves ensuring the prescribed medication is safe and appropriate for each individual. This means confirming the drug/dose is suitable and clinically appropriate as well as identifying potential drug interactions.

“This often involves contacting the prescriber to change a dose or raise a concern, which takes time and deserves remuneration. Finally, pharmacists need to provide adequate counselling on how to take the medicine, give info about side effects and answer any questions.

“Prescribers often have little time to explain how the medicines work, how they should be taken, what to expect when taking them or to answer patient questions specific to medicines, so this is a core role for pharmacists which again deserves remuneration.”

Ms Martin was one of several pharmacists and other sector stakeholders who expressed disappointment with the News Corp pieces.

And on AJP’s coverage of the articles, industry expert Bruce Annabel backed the Guild’s comments that prices varied between pharmacies to allow for overheads.

“In fact based on my data that difference is up to 40% less mainly through lower wages and premises costs,” he wrote.

“Patients tend to vote with their feet based on their view of the ‘value’ they receive which we know is more than just the price paid. Principally traditional pharmacies offer location convenience (saves time), long lasting relationships with their trusted adviser and a very different environment.

“And in a number of these pharmacies the pharmacists operate ‘at the front’ and in the healthcare precincts. In other words the most important aspect of ‘value’ is benefits received in more than just a price context.”

He added that, “During the pandemic pharmacies and pharmacists have really come to the fore in helping fearful patients through the crisis proving yet again their relevance in the health spectrum of Australia”.

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