Thousands of people in Northern Ireland are being deprived of a vital health care service after a major row between pharmacists and the government over cash, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal today.
Nearly 500 community pharmacies across Northern Ireland had been providing a minor ailments scheme for NHS patients, treating common conditions such as hayfever, coughs and colds, for over two years.
However, at the end of last month, virtually all of the pharmacies withdrew the service, after claiming that a new “enhanced” version had been foisted on them by the Department of Health.
The move is likely to force more patients to turn to their GPs for minor complaints putting more pressure on NHS doctors.
The Department’s plan is for patients to be treated for a wider range of ailments — but with the number of remunerated consultations being capped at 1,300.
This would force pharmacists to provide any extra consultations free of charge, or to turn patients away — something they say they are not prepared to do.
The pharmacists stress they want to continue providing the service — they just want the government to fund it properly.
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph today, Terry Hannawin, chief executive of the Pharmaceutical Contractors Committee (PCC), said they wanted to reinstate the scheme — but only on “fair and equitable terms”.
“The Department of Health has forced a situation in which the minor ailments scheme has ceased with effect from July 31, 2008,” he said.
“This is damaging to the progress of public health, is bad news for the NHS and the taxpayer and is entirely avoidable. It has ceased because the terms laid down by the Department of Health for the Scheme after July 31 are unreasonable and unfair.
“The Department of Health are proposing a level of remuneration which is entirely unacceptable and proposes to cap the number of transactions that can be carried out under the scheme in a year. Above this cap there will be no consultation fee payable and so contractors will essentially be providing their services for no payment.”
Since the scheme began in 2005 there have been approximately 250,000 consultations by some 480 pharmacies in Northern Ireland. A pharmacist can provide advice, treat an ailment and refer patients to a doctor if necessary; a service that saves the NHS a large amount of money by reducing the number or visits to GPs and other parts of the NHS.
“The government’s chief medical officer, Michael McBride, praised the scheme in his report this year for providing a valuable service.
“But they appear unwilling to fund it beyond a certain threshold. It costs around £40 each time to visit a GP, compared to around £10 to visit a pharmacy, so already the scheme has potentially generated cash savings to the NHS in Northern Ireland of £8.05m.”
John Clark, general manager of Gordons Chemists — Northern Ireland’s largest independently-owned pharmacy — said an enhanced scheme would provide a vital community service — if the government was willing to pay for it. “I felt that the offer from the department at the end of July was derisory, that the cap is unworkable,” he said.
A spokesman for the Department of Health said the Minister remains committed to the idea of patients being able to access a minor ailments service from their local community pharmacy.