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Pharmacists’ fury at having to turn their patients away

Row as minor treatments are capped

By Sarah Rainey

A Northern Ireland pharmacist last night told how he has had to turn patients away because of a row between chemists and the Government over cash for a vital health care service.

Yesterday, the Belfast Telegraph revealed that nearly 500 community pharmacists across the province had withdrawn a service for minor ailments after they claimed that a new “enhanced” version was being hoisted on them by the Department of Health.

Under the former scheme, community pharmacies were able to consult and treat customers with coughs and colds, sore throats, and hayfever, as well as providing medical advice and GP referrals.

However, the Department’s plans to increase the permitted treatment range means that pharmacists themselves will have a price to pay for this service.

With the Government cap on remunerated treatment of minor ailments placed at 1,300, pharmacists who wish to continue treating customers’ coughs and colds beyond this will have to do so without funding.

The Pharmaceutical Contractors Committee (PCC) is leading the battle against the proposed scheme, seeking terms which take into account the views of community pharmacists.

Belfast pharmacist Terry McGuire, of McGuire’s Pharmacy, fully supports the PCC’s criticism of the Department’s new scheme.

“Pharmacies are usually the first port of call for patients, and it’s more cost-effective and easier to visit a pharmacy than your GP,” he said.

“We have up to 20 requests each day for coughs and colds treatment alone, and it’s very hard to say no, but recently we’ve had to turn patients away.”

Mr McGuire acknowledges that the overall aim of the scheme is to increase the effectiveness of Northern Ireland’s pharmaceutical services, but says that local pharmacies, together with the PCC, feel that the Government is not supporting their position.

“The way this new scheme is structured is fundamental to its success, and our customers’ health,” he said.

“We have supported the PCC in this because we believe it is the right thing to do.

“We are looking to them to ensure that our interests are looked after.”

“I understand that the government has to make firm decisions on how the pharmacy scheme will fit into the quality management of the medical service, but the issue needs discussion and negotiation.”

The Department of Health has set the remuneration limit for pharmacists treating minor ailments at 1,300 consultations - a figure which Mr McGuire says is “ridiculous”.

“It has been argued that we can just sell medicines to these patients over the counter without providing advice or consultation, but this can be expensive for our customers and isn’t always what they want.”

“Giving patients the best treatment we can is the reason the old scheme was introduced in the first place, and pharmacists need space for chronic disease management as well as providing medicines.”

A spokesman for the Department of Health said that the Minister remains committed to the idea of patients being able to |access a minor ailments service from their local community pharmacy.

“We are aware that some contractors have concerns with the |remuneration model offered, however, the opportunity to provide feedback after a six- month period of operation is built into the offer and the minister would urge contractors to deliver the enhanced service and bring their views back to the Department at that stage,” he said.

“The enhanced service remains open to contractors and we would encourage those who have opted out to reconsider.

“The new service provides better access to treatment for patients, gives pharmacists an increased level of remuneration and ensures the pharmacy economy will benefit from the injection of substantial new money.”

“Concerns have also been raised about the use of Test Purchasers. However, contractors should note that, as indicated to PCC, Test Purchasers will only be used should there be any indication of misuse or deviation from the service criteria.

“Credible evaluation of a new service is essential for any government department and we hope that we can work with the profession in agreeing a suitable model.”

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