Push for 24-hour convenience stores to sell prescription medicines
The peak body for convenience stores has backed calls to relax the strict rules governing pharmacies to enable Australians to buy medicines at its 6500 stores, including 7-Eleven and Caltex.
Jeff Rogut, chief executive of the Australasian Association of Convenience Stores, said prescription medications were high on the list of additional goods and services customers wanted to see in their outlets.
“When we do surveys of our customers, pharmacy ranks up there with things like postal services as one of the top items they would like to see in a convenience store,” Mr Rogut told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
“The reason why is because of the extended hours, the ability to park easily, get in and out quickly and do all the things they want to do … it would save them time and be more convenient.”
Mr Rogut said convenience store operators, including those in petrol stations, would be keen to enter the pharmacy sector if allowed.
“If there was the opportunity of doing the US drug store concept, like CVS or Walgreens, that would be warmly welcomed.”
The Pharmacy Guild, which represents the nation’s 5700 community pharmacists, is fiercely opposed to any relaxation of the rules governing the industry, while Australia’s largest pharmacy retailer, Chemist Warehouse, is among those pushing for more competition in the sector.
Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt began consultations last month on a new five-year community pharmacy agreement, expected to be finalised in December and apply from mid-2020.
Grattan Institute health economist Stephen Duckett this week threw his support behind Chemist Warehouse’s call for the Morrison government to deregulate the pharmacy sector. Current rules include limits on how many pharmacies a pharmacist can own, strictly govern the location of chemists, and prevent heavy discounting of Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) medicines for pensioners.
Dr Duckett said opening up the sector to competition would help bring down prices and allowing pharmacies to operate inside 24-hour retailers would make it easier to access prescriptions when they were most needed.
“There are a lot of Australians who miss out on getting a PBS prescription because of cost,” he said.
“What we want is to reduce the cost of prescriptions to these people, and that would improve the health status of Australia.”
Mr Rogut said most convenience stores were open for extended hours and could offer pharmacy services around the clock.
“I’m sure there would be some entrepreneurial retailers who would leap at that opportunity. Many of our larger stores have the space,” he said.
Pharmacy Guild president George Tambassis said the regulations that underpinned the sector ensured that community pharmacists could stay in business in the suburbs and towns where they were needed.
“The things community pharmacists do for patients, across medication management and health advice and screening, do not belong in aisle eight of a supermarket, or next to the alcohol or cigarettes that they sell,” Mr Tambassis said.
Coles, Woolworths, Aldi and Kmart all declined to comment when asked if they would be interested in entering the pharmacy sector.
Master Grocers Australia chief executive Jos de Bruin said his members – 2500 small grocers across Australia – would prefer to continue operating alongside community pharmacists within shopping precincts.
The peak body for independent supermarkets believes pharmacy deregulation would harm small, family run chemists that were more likely to give customers the care and attention they needed.
“They’re all community-minded businesses, and they often form the hub of the communities they operate in,” Mr de Bruin said.
He said large retailers were unable to deliver “the quality or the level of service and support that people in need of pharmaceutical goods require”.
“What big business does in pharmacy is it takes out the whole personal relationship piece, and in pharmacy it’s really important to have the relationships, the trust and the right advice.”
However, Dr Duckett said all pharmacists, including those operating in the Chemist Warehouse chain, were required to provide advice to consumers when dispensing prescriptions.
“It’s not as if this is an unregulated area,” he said.
Australian Medical Association president Tony Bartone said pharmacists had “a very important role to play in medication management”, working in tandem with treating physicians to ensure patients took their medicines correctly.
Dr Bartone said the issue of pharmacy regulation was complex, noting that multiple reviews had failed to resolve the contested issues.
“The experts have all tried to look at this and no one’s been able to find the magic formula,” he said.
The government’s Harper review of competition laws recommended deregulation of the retail pharmacy industry in 2015, but its advice was not followed.
Mr Hunt said the government was committed to “early and inclusive” consultations on the seventh community pharmacy agreement.
A spokeswoman for Labor’s health spokesman, Chris Bowen, said Labor did not support pharmacy deregulation.