Millions of Australians will be able to buy 60 days’ worth of medicine for the price of a single prescription from September, under a major and controversial shake-up of the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) in next month’s budget.
- The government will double the amount of medicine some people can collect with each script from one to two months
- The policy will be targetted at people with chronic illnesses and will include 320 medicines on the PBS
- The Pharmacy Guild says the changes will cause supply shortages and financially impact pharmacies
The federal government will on Wednesday announce at least six million Australians will be able to collect a two-month supply of medicine rather than one when they pick up their script, effectively halving the cost.
The change will mean more patients need fewer visits to the GP for repeat prescriptions, and the government estimates it will save Australians more than $1.6 billion over the next four years.
The policy will be targeted at people with chronic illnesses like diabetes and heart disease and will include 320 medicines on the PBS.
Consumers Health Forum of Australia CEO Elizabeth Deveny said the changes would mean more Australians could pay for vital medicines they might otherwise have delayed getting.
“Consumers are telling us that they can’t afford their health care,” she said.
“They pay the out-of-pocket costs for their visits to GPs and any medicines where they pay a co-payment, and they can’t afford to pay this anymore.
“Many of them are really struggling to pay for things like their rent or their mortgage, and then making the decision not to pay for their medicines.
“We see this change to prescribing as one way to reduce the costs of health care. This will allow many Australians to afford the health care that they actually need.”
The decision to write a script which allows for two-months of medicine to be dispensed will be made by a patient’s doctor, and the option to prescribe a one-month supply remains, if there is concern about any potential risks for the patient.
Dr Deveny noted not all Australians would be able to take advantage of the change, given only a few hundred medicines were included in the announcement.
“It is very important that those of you who take a lot of medicines, particularly those with chronic disease, have a conversation with your healthcare professionals and understand what this means for you,” she said.
We can’t afford to keep our doors open, say pharmacists
The Pharmacy Guild has been staunchly opposed to the idea after the government flagged its intention to implement the change last week, arguing it could lead to supply shortages and impact patient care.
Speaking ahead of the government’s announcement, ACT Pharmacist and Capital Chemist Charnwood owner Samantha Kourtis said there would also be a huge financial cost to pharmacies.
“We can’t afford to keep our doors open, offering the same services when this comes through, as what we are now,” she said.
“There will be cuts. We’re anticipating one-third of the pharmacy employment sector will lose their jobs; that’s pharmacists, nurses, pharmacy assistants.”
However, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners president Nicole Higgins dismissed those suggestions as alarmist.
“At a time when the Pharmacy Guild has recorded the biggest profits in pharmacy, this is fearmongering,” she told the ABC on Tuesday.
“We need to put patients first and we need to make sure people can have cheaper and easier healthcare and free up those GP appointments.”
Pharmacists currently receive dispensing fees from the Commonwealth each time medication is sold, which cost the budget $1.67 billion in the 2021-22 financial year.
However, the federal government argued every dollar it saved because of the changes would be reinvested back into community pharmacies.
In a statement, Health Minister Mark Butler said the announcement would benefit many Australians.
“Every year, nearly a million Australians are forced to delay or go without a medicine that their doctor has told them is necessary for their health,” he said.
“This cheaper medicines policy is safe, good for Australians’ hip pockets and most importantly good for their health.”
In 2018, the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee recommended patients should be able to increase their script refill from one month’s supply to two month’s supply for some common medicines, however it was not adopted by the former Coalition government.
The total cost of the policy change to government will be unveiled in the May budget.