‘Preposterous thesis’ in pharmacy attack

One stakeholder has urged pharmacists not to let “cynical attacks” get them down, as a series of articles claims some patients are “footing the bill” on medicines prices and enriching pharmacists

Over the weekend News Corp media published a number of articles about the cost to patients of medicines, claiming price differences are the result of the ownership and location rules.

The articles, by the organisation’s national health reporter Sue Dunlevy, include state-based variations; the Herald Sun version, for example, is titled, “Where you pay $15 more for medicine in Victoria because of where you live”.

The ownership and location rules have “turned pharmacies into multimillion-dollar businesses, with consumers left paying as much as $15 more for the exact same medicine depending on where they live,” Ms Dunlevy writes.

“And it is patients in regional towns left footing the biggest bill.”

The “News Corp Australia investigation” used data sourced from Chemist Warehouse to identify a top 10 of PBS/RPBS drugs by prescription count, also listing a price with each.

“In Victoria, Rosuvastatin costs $23.20 in South Melbourne, $23 in Richmond, $9.95 in Brunswick and $8.99 at Chemist Warehouse in Prahran,” says the Herald Sun. The $8.99 at Chemist Warehouse is listed in the top 10 table.

In NSW/ACT’s Daily Telegraph as well as other News outlets, another paragraph reads, “In NSW the cholesterol beating medicine Atorvastatin costs a general patient just $5.99 at Chemist Warehouse but $20.87 at the Michael O’Reilly Pharmacy in Wagga Wagga, $20 in Gilgandra, $7 at Rumore’s Pharmacy in Bankstown and $12.95 at Ralph’s Pharmacy in Campbelltown”.

Ms Dunlevy writes that Pharmacy Guild national president George Tambassis charges different prices at three pharmacies: “The president of the Pharmacy Guild of Australia George Tambassis charges $12.95 for Rosuvatatin at his Vermont pharmacy, $11.50 at his Cowes pharmacy but just $9.95 at his Brunswick chemist”.

Mr Tambassis told News Corp that “The idea that different businesses with different costs, wages, staff levels and rental overheads should all charge the same price in an open market is frankly unrealistic.”

The Guild noted in a media release that this article bears a strong similarity to previous pieces penned by the same reporter in News Corp media.

For example, this time last year, Ms Dunlevy wrote that “Australia’s drug subsidy scheme is actually inflating the price of many common medicines”.

“The hefty dispensing, administration and handling fees paid to chemists to stick a label on drugs are in some cases five to six times the cost of the medicines they are dispensing,” she wrote at the time.

Meanwhile the Courier-Mail published an editorial saying that Queenslanders would be “rightly appalled” by the articles.

“The Pharmacy Guild makes a reasonable point – different overheads means different prices. That is the free market.

“But the rental rates and wages in these towns are rarely higher than Brisbane. It is hard to believe freight creating the rest of the mark up. It fails the pub test.”

It concludes, “Nobody wants regional pharmacies to disappear. They are essential services in a towns that are too often losing them”.

“But any greedy price gouging will soon lose the support and sympathy of customers and the public and call down changes upon pharmacy heads.”

The Guild has responded to Ms Dunlevy’s articles by pointing out that during the COVID-19 pandemic, community pharmacies have remained open to serve the public and dispense medicines.

“Pharmacies have gone above and beyond to serve patients because they are connected to their communities and committed to the health needs of their patients,” it said in a media release.

“This commitment to our primary health care role makes it all the more regrettable see an unfair and ill-informed attack on community pharmacy by News Corp tabloid newspapers – displaying no understanding whatsoever of the varying costs associated with running a small business or the overwhelming benefit for consumers of our subsidised medicine scheme the PBS.

“The extraordinary thing is that this petty attack on pharmacists gives no credit whatsoever to the skill, experience or clinical responsibility of professional pharmacists dispensing medicines, nor to the need for a small business to be viable.

“The preposterous thesis of the articles in News Corp newspapers is that medicines should be sold in pharmacies for around the same price that they cost. And further, that pharmacies should all charge the same price for under co-payment, non-subsidised medicines, regardless of their cost base, including varying rent or wage costs.

“It is just a fantasy of course, and deeply disappointing that News Corp editors think this sort of attack on pharmacy – year in year out by the same reporter – is worthy of space in a newspaper.”

Mr Tambassis said that “This latest unfair assault on medicine pricing is all the more galling when you consider that pharmacies have stayed open and served patients throughout this COVID-19 pandemic in a way that is immensely courageous”.

“It is quite appalling that a media organisation would focus on why a medicine might be $9.95 at one pharmacy but $10.95 at another at a time when we are at Stage 4 restrictions in Victoria, and pharmacies all over the country are continuing to serve the community with such distinction.”

He had told members in a message on Friday that such an article was likely to appear.

“Maybe they think they are doing one of their advertisers a favour,” he suggested.

“Nil desperandum! We will come through this together, and we won’t let cynical attacks get us down.”

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