INTERVIEW WITH GREG TURNBULL, COMMUNICATIONS SPOKESMAN, PHARMACY GUILD OF AUSTRALIA ABOUT CALLS TO DEREGULATE THE PHARMACY INDUSTRY.
JOHN MCGLUE: Pretty harsh views, really, there on the rules governing pharmacies from Janet Albrechtsen and indeed also on the Pharmacy Guild itself. Greg Turnbull is director – the Communications Manager of the Pharmacy Guild of Australia. Greg, welcome to the program.
GREG TURNBULL: Good afternoon.
JOHN MCGLUE: It’s 2014. Why is it that the pharmacy sector is so heavily restricted, so heavily regulated, when every other profession has been deregulated certainly in competition terms, and has been set free to make its way in the free market so that consumers can get price benefits. Why not pharmacies?
GREG TURNBULL: Well, look, I think it’s a very legitimate area of debate, especially as you say we are coming up to the renewal of an agreement that the pharmacy has with the Federal Government. The fact of the matter is, though, that medicines under the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme are not ordinary items of commerce as, with respect to Janet, they’re not like a deli setting up across the road. They’re a subsidised medicine scheme and an integral part of our health system, and most of the regulation that affects them, that affects pharmacies, is in fact what I call good regulation. And which we are very happy to defend, and not on the basis that it’s good just for pharmacists, but on the basis that it’s good for our health system.
JOHN MCGLUE: Well, as you see it, Greg Turnbull, what does the Pharmacy Community Agreement put in place?
GREG TURNBULL: Well, the government decided back in 1948 that it wanted to subsidise medicines to the Australian community very properly, and I think everyone would support that. What the agreement does – so, the government basically says, well, look, we want to subsidise these medicines and we want to make sure that they’re available in a fair and equitable and timely way right across the continent and right where people live. And so the agreement is about pharmacy coming to government and saying, okay, we will dispense these medicines subject to various conditions and subject to, effectively, price controls that are imposed under the PBS, and we will do it in those locations as part of this subsidised medicine system. So that’s what it’s about. It’s about a public-private partnership between privately owned pharmacies – and that’s what they are, they’re all privately owned – and the public interest of dispensing these medicines.
JOHN MCGLUE: Why are the location and the ownership rules so important to you? The location rules, in terms of the tick off that’s required before anybody can set up a pharmacy next door to another. And I’ve got to say, Greg Turnbull, that in Western Australia there are a number of pharmacies that are located close to each other and our listeners are just reinforcing that with some texts. They really can be close to each other. Why is it important that somebody’s got to regulate that?
GREG TURNBULL: Well, it’s important because if there was the free market, as economic rationalists and Janet Albrechtsen would support, then there would be a free for all which would see the clustering of pharmacies, which would see large what are called big-box pharmacies running other pharmacies – smaller, independent pharmacies – out of business. So that an elderly person in a suburb in Perth might actually have to be transported to or drive to, you know, an industrial state, to a mega-pharmacy, because there was no pharmacy in the shopping centre around the corner or in the shopping street around the corner. These rules are designed not to protect pharmacies from competition but to protect the timely and equitable availability of medicines where people live.
JOHN MCGLUE: It’s sounding, Greg Turnbull, like you’re painting the scenario which sounds to me like the argument that runs about local bottle shops. That if you allow the big liquor stores to – the big liquor chains to dominate in the suburbs, well, then you’re going to see the end of the local, independently-owned bottle shop. Is that the same argument for pharmacies?
GREG TURNBULL: Well, it would be if Pharmaceutical Benefit Scheme medicines – some of them life saving medicines – were exactly the same as a six pack of beer, and I don’t think they are. I think there’s a real public interest benefit in ensuring that medicines are available where people live and where people need them. And that’s – if you like, I mean, the Federal Government, whether it’s the Labor or Coalition government, whether they’re free marketeers or not, they recognise this public health benefit of having pharmacies where people live. And so we have to bear the slings and arrows of economic rationalists, but we’re prepared to do that. Because I believe the system’s a good one.
JOHN MCGLUE: So, Greg Turnbull, you enter in these negotiations with the Federal Government. You’re just about to start again. You will be going in with the same cards? Playing the same cards? No changes to the restrictions? You want to see it continued for another five years?
GREG TURNBULL: Look, there have been reviews of the – the location rules as you might imagine are reasonably complex and there have been reviews of them in the past. There will be in the future. The Pharmacy Guild is a body that supports community pharmacy. We represent the owners. So we’re not a union as such, but I guess we can be called an employer union. And the fact of the matter is that what we’re about is making sure that pharmacies are viable to continue doing the good work that they do. But there will be, obviously, a negotiation. There’s give and take. But let’s see what that brings. The new agreement doesn’t come into place until July next year.
JOHN MCGLUE: I think, Greg Turnbull, you’re in the same boat as the Australian Medical Association when it comes to descriptions. When in the normal course of events, you’re a professional organisation, but when it comes to money, you’re a trade union.
GREG TURNBULL: Well, we’re prepared to bear all sorts of epithets if necessary. What we’re about is making sure that pharmacies are there and viable to do business for Austra… and do the important work they do with Australian healthcare consumers.
JOHN MCGLUE: Yeah. Greg Turnbull, it’s good to talk with you today. Thanks so much for your time.
GREG TURNBULL: My pleasure. Thank you.
JOHN MCGLUE: Greg Turnbull there, the Communications Director of the Pharmacy Guild of Australia.