Cuts force chemists to halt vital prescription service
Health budget cuts have forced pharmacists across Northern Ireland to withdraw a "vital" service for patients about to embark on long-running repeat prescriptions.
From tomorrow, chemists will no longer provide pre-filled medicine trays - also known as monitored dosage systems - for new clients.
Existing patients won't be affected.
The medicine trays are used by patients on a combination of drugs, including the elderly and often those with complex conditions requiring multiple drugs.
It is estimated that tens of thousands rely on these trays daily for the safe management of their medicines.
Community Pharmacy NI (CPNI) said chemists had been forced to take the "unprecedented step" to prevent putting patients at risk.
The development comes just days after Northern Ireland's Chief Medical Officer, Dr Michael McBride, warned that the local health service could "bankrupt" other Stormont departments and public services.
Northern Ireland's most senior doctor also told MPs at the NI Affairs Committee in London on Wednesday our growing ageing population was one of the factors contributing to a growing financial crisis for the health service.
While the Department of Health recently announced it would provide an additional £11.1m for community pharmacies over the next three years, CPNI believes it is not enough to quell the ongoing funding crisis.
Earlier this month, drug companies warned they may be forced to withdraw wholesale supplies from cash-strapped pharmacies due to unpaid bills.
Co Armagh pharmacist Mark Hunter said taking the decision had been "extremely difficult" and "demoralising".
"But as health professionals, we must take difficult choices when we believe patient safety is at risk," he said.
"As departmental cuts deepen in our sector, pharmacists are working longer hours and with fewer staff.
"We no longer have the time or resources to provide this service to new patients safely.
"Existing medicine trays patients are not affected, but we cannot guarantee that in the long-term."
Meanwhile, a support group for carers has warned the development could have a knock-on effect on front-line services.
Clare-Anne Magee from Carers NI explained: "Carers in the family or domiciliary care providers rely on these trays to administer the correct medication.
"So the withdrawal of this service will not only impact on them, but could mean a slowdown in hospital discharge rates if patients do not have adequate means to manage their conditions at home."
CPNI confirmed that it had informed all relevant organisations and healthcare providers of its decision.
Chief executive Gerard Greene said the £11.1m cash injection had fallen "far below" what was required and called on the department to immediately release further funding.
"In the context of that announcement, it is even more alarming that community pharmacists feel prompted to withdraw a service like this - particularly one that helps so many patients", he said.
"It makes no sense to see cuts to community pharmacy at a time when we are supposed to be actively encouraging care in the community."
The Department of Health stressed it was "striving to manage increasing financial pressures" amid single-year budgets and increasing demands for services and funding allocations.
"The department has to live within its budget and cannot spend money it does not have," said a spokesperson.
They added the £11.1m funding had been made in "recognition of the provision of medicines in a suitable format - such as medicine trays - to support the delivery of domiciliary care services."