Northern Ireland pharmacists turning patients away because of restrictions on drug supplies
Pharmacies across Northern Ireland are being forced to turn away patients asking for potentially life-saving medications because of increasing pressures, it has been claimed.
Community Pharmacy NI (CPNI), the body which represents chemists, said pharmacists are unable to access enough levels of certain drugs due to how the supply chain operates.
Chairperson John Clark said some medications have restricted quotas of the number of drugs pharmacies receive - set by both pharmaceutical companies and wholesalers - which are regularly exceeded by pharmacists.
This then forces pharmacists to appeal either to the drug company or wholesaler for a higher quota, which if unsuccessful forces the chemist to redirect patients elsewhere or tell them to come back.
Mr Clark said pharmacists are now so stretched they do not always have time to ask for more.
"If a pharmacist has to direct a patient to another chemist, it's not a given that they will get their medication from another pharmacy," he said.
"It's an everyday issue for pharmacists and can affect a wide range of drugs for many conditions such as diabetes or hypertension.
"Quotas have been in place for some time but never has anyone ever seen it like this."
He explained that while the UK has access to some of the most affordable prescription medicines - the cheapest in Europe - it has resulted in a supply chain that is already restricted at its source.
Referring to the ongoing funding shortfall within community pharmacy, despite an additional £11.1m from the Department of Health announced last month, Mr Clark said it was contributing to the overall crisis.
From today, chemists across Northern Ireland will also stop preparing pre-filled medicine trays for new patients - a decision that had to be taken because of increasing pressures on community pharmacy.
The move will not affect current patients on a combination of drugs who require the trays, also known as monitored dosage systems. Addressing the quota issue, Mr Clark added: "The biggest role for pharmacists is the safe supply of medicines to their patients.
"In the past pharmacists could deal with quotas, but because of the increasing pressures, pharmacists have less and less resources and time to address it."
He stressed the issue of patients' safety has been raised by CPNI with health authorities over the few past months, but to no avail.
One patient affected is Roberta Dunlop, who has type 2 diabetes.
The Ards and North Down councillor said she was left deeply worried when her pharmacist told her he was unable to provide her regular insulin medication last weekend.
"I put in my prescription for my insulin on a monthly basis. I get four pens, one of which would last me a week," she said. "I went to my pharmacist last Saturday and he told me that his supply had been restricted. He had reached his quota limit."
Mrs Dunlop said her pharmacist then reached out to other chemists in the area to locate her the required medication, which was eventually found elsewhere in north Down.
"I've been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes for eight years and have never had this issue before," she added. "This is playing with people's lives. This is really a very serious situation."
The Health and Social Board (HSCB) said the supply of medicines are private arrangements between pharmacy businesses and the pharmaceutical industry but it has "in the past been made aware of quotas" process.
"Where supply has been insufficient, HSCB has intervened on behalf of contractors to ensure that medicines remain available for patients," it said.