Drug firms warn they could stop supplying Northern Ireland's cash-strapped pharmacies due to unpaid bills
Northern Ireland's pharmacy service is edging closer to crisis, with wholesalers warning they may have to stop supplying some high street chemists with drugs.
It has emerged that a number of wholesalers have written to the Department of Health to warn them the supply of medication could grind to a halt.
As a result, patients with life-threatening and debilitating conditions such as asthma, diabetes, multiple sclerosis and even cancer will find it increasingly hard to get medication.
It comes as the community pharmacy sector plunges deeper into a financial crisis, with health officials being blamed for failing to adequately fund the crucial NHS service.
This is despite an assurance from previous Health Minister Michelle O'Neill that the situation would be addressed.
Drugs firms have said a growing number of high street pharmacists are struggling to pay them for medication. It has emerged that some pharmacists are raiding their pension funds and savings to pay their bills.
Martin Kelly, finance director of pharmaceutical distributor Ethigen, said the firm is now having to chase community pharmacies to ensure they settle their bills.
He said it is the first time in the firm's 15-year history that they have ever had to take such action.
In a letter to Dr Mark Timoney, Northern Ireland's chief pharmaceutical officer, Mr Kelly said: "These conditions mean that we are finding it increasingly difficult to obtain credit risk insurance on pharmacies.
"We are also increasingly sceptical of pharmacies looking to open accounts with us, the suspicion being that credit terms have been exhausted with other suppliers.
"The entire supply chain relies on the credit-worthiness of pharmacies. Without this, the supply of medicines will grind to a halt.
"I appreciate the difficulties the budgetary pressures are creating for everyone. However, having spoken with many long standing customers, who are becoming increasingly disillusioned with pharmacy, we feel it is only prudent to make you aware that there is an imminent danger of pharmacies failing, or at least being unable to trade due to a lack of credit provision from suppliers."
The letter was sent on October 8, 2018 and while Mr Kelly has received an acknowledgement of receipt of the letter, the department has not yet responded to his concerns.
The body that represents community pharmacists has accused department officials of ignoring calls by pharmacists, charities, patient groups and now wholesalers, to act to protect the service.
Gerard Greene, chief of Community Pharmacy NI, which represents contractors here, said: "We have been telling them for some time that community pharmacy is on its knees and cannot pay its bills.
"We have also been warning the department that the failure to resolve this issue will have dire consequences for patient safety.
"This is now becoming a reality, with the warning from wholesalers that there is an imminent danger of pharmacies failing and patients being unable to obtain their medicines.
"The sheer intransigence of the department in resolving this situation will result in pharmacies closing and will reduce people's access to a vital health service, impacting hugely upon patient safety."
The department said: "Despite well-documented pressures on the health budget, we are actively working to finalise discussions and secure a sustainable way forward on funding.
"We plan to make an announcement shortly.
"It always needs to be remembered that the budget is far from infinite and the department cannot spend money it does not have."
North Antrim MP Ian Paisley said: "I encourage the department and commissioners to engage in meaningful discussions with community pharmacy representatives to resolve this issue urgently."
The claims are the latest blow for the department, coming as the Royal College of Nursing launches a ballot today asking members if they want to be polled on industrial action over pay.