Of course, patients can maintain their own records, but it is much easier for them if they can rely on a pharmacy to do so. An electronic scheme would reduce patient dependence on a particular pharmacy. And there’s the rub: this recommendation would increase competition, something that is anathema to pharmacy owners in Australia.
Other pro-competition, pro-consumer recommendations, such as an “atlas” providing customers with information on pharmacies’ opening hours and the availability of multi-lingual staff, were rejected out of hand – “noted” is the term used in the government response.
Pharmacy owners have also persuaded the government to stymie proposals to relax the complex location rules that harm consumers by restricting competition between pharmacies. Grattan Institute’s submission to the King review showed that, contrary to the rhetoric of pharmacy owners, these location rules benefits the owners but not their customers.
How taxpayers miss out
The three-person King review panel was divided on a set of recommendations relating to future payments to pharmacy owners (the “dispensing fee”). Professor King and the consumer representative offered one set of proposals. The third panel member, a Pharmacy Guild insider, dissented.
The majority view was that government payment to pharmacies should be based on a “best practice pharmacy”, and that pharmacies adopt a common accounting framework – which would make it easier for governments to understand just how profitable community pharmacies are.
Yet even these seemingly innocuous recommendations were too much for the pharmacy owners. It seems the industry does not want future pharmacy pricing to be more transparent and evidence-based. Why not? Because increased transparency would strike at the core of pharmacy owners’ power; policy would no longer be held hostage to the pharmacy lobby’s unsubstantiated claims that their industry is in dire straits.
Once again, the power of sectoral interest groups in Australian health policy is exposed. Having summoned the courage to lift the lid on the pharmacy industry, the government has now squibbed the opportunity to improve the lot of consumers and taxpayers. The extensive public consultations of the King review have been trumped by the private consultations involved in developing the government’s response.
Once again, the public interest has lost out.