Patients could lose out on vital prescriptions as drug costs soar for pharmacies
Patients across Northern Ireland could struggle to get vital prescriptions if the Department of Health does not step in to avert a costs crisis, a leading pharmacist has warned.
Co Londonderry chemist Laurence O'Kane says basic drugs are rocketing in price - and if the government continues to stand back and let businesses cover the cost, patients will suffer.
"It's not a huge leap to see pharmacies going out of business," he said.
"We're paying hiked-up prices for medication because our patients need them, but we are businesses at the end of the day, and this situation isn't sustainable."
Mr O'Kane, who employs 25 people at his pharmacies in Draperstown, explained that demand for at least 100 essential medicines worldwide is driving prices up - and private businesses are being forced to cover the rising costs.
"That means community pharmacies - independent businesses - are forking out huge amounts for the basic drugs people need," he said.
"That's blood pressure tablets, medication for depression and epilepsy, cholesterol and period pains.
"We're not talking miracle drugs here, it's the basics.
"Pharmacies are covering the extra costs, putting themselves in debt, with little or no assurance from the government they'll be properly reimbursed."
Under normal circumstances, explained Mr O'Kane, the Department of Health has set monthly concessionary prices - telling pharmacies what they will be reimbursed for each drug.
However, he said, more and more these figures fall short, leaving businesses operating on monthly deficits.
In addition, according to Mr O'Kane, the Department is failing to set its concessionary prices until later and later in the month, leaving business owners operating their budgets in the dark.
"As of Friday, January 26, the January prices weren't yet set," he said. "As businesses we have to pay up for the drugs we've bought, but we have no idea what we can expect to be reimbursed. What other profession would be expected to work under those circumstances?"
Mr O'Kane explained the difficulty in funding has been rising since 2011, and that ministers were aware of the problem while Stormont was still up and running.
"In 2015 the Department of Health carried out a survey to determine the operating costs of community pharmacies," he explained.
"The final report was published in November and although it showed significant underfunding since 2011, nothing has been done to rectify the problem."
In fact, he said, more funding cuts have come in since June.
"This is despite being told decisions on funding cannot be taken without a minister in place," he said. "So this obviously only works one way."
The Department of Health had not responded to a request for a response by time of going to press.