Political backing for lobby against pharmacy cuts

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PHARMACIES face closure, with loss of jobs, if a swathe of cuts is imposed, local politicians have been warned.

Community Pharmacy NI claims efficiencies proposed by the Department of Health amount to £38 million, or 30 per cent of the total community pharmacy budget.

Chief executive Gerard Green told Larne Borough council he had told DUP Health Minister Edwin Poots that the service cannot sustain cuts of that magnitude and spoke of implications for a range of services currently available at local pharmacies including flu jabs, screening programmes and even organising the daily medication requirements of elderly or less able customers.

Anne-Marie McGrath, who runs pharmacies in Larne, Carnlough and Glenarm, told the council: “I get very emotional about it and very cross that this is happening.”

Mr Green gave Cllr John Mathews (Alliance) an indication of the scope of the proposed cuts when he said that any pharmacy business is “85 per cent NHS-dependant”. The dispensing fee is £1.04 for each item, while pharmacists reckoned it actually costs them £3 per item, and front-of-shop retailing like toiletries account for around 15 per cent of turnover.

Asked by DUP councillor Gregg McKeen to suggest means of making savings without impacting on service, Mr Green replied that if pharmacists had a say in the overall drugs budget they could save the administration millions by recommending brands cheaper than those often prescribed by GPs. He quoted the example of a branded inhaler which costs £5, when there is an alternative priced at £1.

Alliance councillor Gerardine Mulvenna said it was “absolutely shocking” that the “huge reduction” was being imposed all at once. Cllr Maureen Morrow (UUP) asked if there was any way to maintain the level of service without the funding. Ms McGrath replied that outreach work she undertakes, like addressing community groups, is only possible because she has back-up from staff.

“We are dispensing medicines for people who are vulnerable, old or compromised,” she explained. “We have to make sure that people are getting the right medicines at the right time and in the right way. We are keeping people out of nursing homes and out of hospital.”

Claire McGurk, manager of the Boots pharmacy in Larne, added that services that take pressure off GPs, including flu vaccination, filling tablet boxes and advising on diet plans will all be in jeopardy.

Ulster Unionist alderman Roy Beggs said he had “never heard of any such cut ever being made”, while SDLP councillor Martin Wilson said he believed the shortfall would be addressed by the reintroduction of prescription charges.

Mayor Cllr Bobby McKee (DUP) said he felt strongly about the issue, adding that pharmacies provided a vital services to older and less able people.

On the proposal of Ald Beggs, the council resolved to urge Mr Poots to reconsider the cut, while expressing concern about the potential damage to pharmacies, particular in rural parts of the borough.

UUP MLA Roy Beggs Jnr, who met the community pharmacy lobbyists at Stormont last week, said: “If pharmacies are forced to close there will be a void in advice and poorer access to medical drugs which is likely to impact more on isolated communities.

“A key front-line part of the health service will be lost, with a knock-on effect of increased travel costs to patients and potentially the health service itself.”