‘There are pharmacies doing it very tough.’

Business is far from booming in pharmacy, as economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic has readers worried about job security and business viability

Earlier this month, the AJP asked readers how they were being affected by COVID-19 in an economic sense, as business quietened down following an initial spike in demand in March as patients tried to stockpile medicines.

We discovered that a whopping 411 readers (60% of those who responded) to our poll had experienced just this: an initial increase in traffic, followed by a slump.

At the time of writing, 33% said traffic had dropped (227 readers); 7% said it was about the same as pre-pandemic (50 readers) and 8% had experienced greater traffic (54 readers).

And pharmacists are worried about losing their jobs – or their businesses.

Of the business owners, 10% (66%) were worried they might lose their pharmacy due to COVID-19, while one unfortunate reader told us that they had either already done so, or that it was about to happen.

More than a fifth (21%—145 readers) said their business remained viable but was squeezed, while only 3% said their business was doing better than ever.

Six per cent (41) readers said they had lost their job, and another 14% (96 readers) were worried that it would also happen to them.

Anthony Tassone, Victorian branch president of the Pharmacy Guild, said that Guild members had generally given feedback that there had been a spike in demand for medicines in March, “at the height of concerns and daily cases of COVID-19,” but this had dropped off noticeably in April and May.

“More pronounced falls in trade and patients seeking assistance from the pharmacy have typically been for pharmacies located in central business districts, large shopping centres and large medical centres (especially where the GPs have transitioned to telehealth),” he told the AJP.

“From speaking with pharmacy proprietors, they are trying to remain optimistic as restrictions are eased around the country and life; professionally, socially and otherwise can return as close to normal as it can in time.

“There is no doubt that like many other small businesses there are pharmacies doing it very tough and the overriding sentiment I receive from proprietors who are in a challenging position is their ensuring job security for the staff and continuity of care for their patients – but it’s also essential that proprietors do what they can for their own self-care as well.”

But what about JobKeeper?

In our poll, 31% of readers said that their pharmacy had reduced staffing levels; 15% of readers said that staff in their pharmacy were on the JobKeeper payment and working, while 3% said staff were on JobKeeper and stood down.

Anthony Tassone said that any government support for small business was welcomed by the Guild and that the JobKeeper program is a “very significant initiative”—but it has complexities.

“What many of our members have found is that they have had to engage expert independent advice given the special circumstances that some pharmacies face particularly with the dispensing of high cost drugs and how this may skew the true picture of trading conditions for pharmacies,” he said.

“Also there are instances based on the business structure of some pharmacies where multiple stores or entities may trade under the same ABN, but are still operated as separate businesses – and one premises may qualify for JobKeeper but the consolidated figures may present a different picture. 

“We hope that the ATO, with the appropriate presentation of the case from such businesses takes this into account when considering eligibility.

“Whilst some small businesses, including pharmacies, may not qualify for JobKeeper by the criteria of falls in revenue they may still be experiencing distress and landlords must be open to engaging with their tenants wherever possible and providing what assistance is possible – not just what they’re required to under legislation and codes of conduct if they’re serious about the longer term viability of their centres and the service offerings to the community.”

Mr Tassone said that the single most important thing that the federal government could do to ensure continuity of care for patients across Australia through community pharmacies “is to finalise as a matter of urgency the 7th Community Pharmacy Agreement to recognise the critical role we play in primary care, the substantial savings already delivered to the taxpayer of over a decade of PBS reform and provides certainty and sustainability to our profession and sector”.

“Proprietors should continue to engage with their landlord about the ongoing trading conditions of their pharmacy throughout this challenging time, and reach out for further assistance where needed – for example the Victorian Small Business Commissioner can provide a no-charge mediation service for tenants in Victoria with their landlords in disputes regarding their rent and lease conditions during COVID-19,” he said.

“Some states, including Tasmania and Western Australia have provided specific and targeted financial assistance grants to general practice and community pharmacies in recognition of the critical role played in frontline primary care. 

“Other states and teritories should look at these initiatives to see how they can be adopted in their own jurisdiction particularly if there is any risk of a ‘second wave’ of infections should this occur with easing of restrictions.

“The Guild continues to advocate at both a State and Federal level on behalf of community pharmacy during this time of the challenges being faced – and assist members wherever possible with their workplace relations obligations for employees and other business support.”

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1 Comment

  1. Bruce ANNABEL

    The article is correct particularly Anthony Tassone’s comments and points.
    Most traditional pharmacies have seen their activity level fall back to about the same, or a little less, compared with the same time last year. Some demand will return after health consumers work their way through the medicines they have accumulated. But, many pharmacies are in trouble in various locations and with struggling business models are doing it very tough having little choice but to reduce staff numbers and access support.
    These are all facts even though the economy is supported by various government sugar hits. When these expire in a few months the economy and government budgets will be in bad shape that will take a long time to recover, how long nobody knows.
    While the sugar hit holds up jobs and the economy consider all the ‘internal controllables’ in the pharmacy that you, your staff and banner management (if applicable) can work on. IE: spend the time now to get ready.
    And while we will shortly have a new community pharmacy aggreement it will unlikely provide an easy ‘get out of trouble free’ pass for you. Now is the time to look into every opportunity available that you can use to help patients improve their health and build related income such as medication management in addition to overhead control.

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