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“People may die” warning in Irish pharmacy dispute

Patients in tears, allegations of intimidation and a warning that people may die — these are the latest features of a dispute between pharmacists and health minister for the Irish Republic, Mary Harney, in what has become one of the state’s ugliest confrontations involving the pharmacy profession.

Hundreds of community pharmacies have withdrawn from state drugs schemes, in protest over what they claim is a 34 per cent payments cut that will cause staff lay-offs and pharmacy closures. As a result, patients are being forced to travel long distances, and to queue for hours, to get their medicines. Major players like Boots, although not involved in the dispute, have had to shut some outlets for a time to allow staff to deal with a backlog in prescriptions.

With the dispute, involving over a quarter of the Republic’s 1,900 community pharmacies, now in its second week, the minister and representatives of the Irish Pharmacy Union have agreed to meet, though neither offers hope of a compromise.

Government refuses to discuss money

IPU president Liz Hoctor said she “does not believe a resumption of normal services is likely at this time”, while the minister said in a statement last week (6 August 2009) that she is willing to talk about the future “developmental role” of pharmacies, not about the fees cut.

In the Irish High Court, 35 pharmacies that had withdrawn from state schemes were ordered to resume services on the grounds that they had not given the 30 days’ notice required by their contracts. The court action, taken by the Republic’s Health Service Executive, has led to a hardening of attitudes.

To help fill gaps in the service, the HSE has opened 10 temporary dispensaries, but these have proved inadequate to meet demand. Staff manning them are alleged to have been threatened with violence in some areas, and the HSE has sent a dossier of complaints to the Pharmaceutical Society of Ireland.

The IPU said it would condemn any intimidation by members but has not seen any evidence to support the allegations.

Amid continuing reports of patient distress, James O’Reilly, health spokesman for the main opposition party, Fine Gael, warned that “people may die” if the dispute is not resolved soon. His call for the appointment of a mediator was rejected by the minister.

The cuts, the health minister claimed, amount to 24 per cent and are necessary because of the chronic state of the national finances, plus the fact that Irish pharmacists’ fees are the highest in the EU. Even after the reductions, she said, the average pharmacy will still get guaranteed revenue from the state of over €260,000 a year.

Citation: The Pharmaceutical Journal URI: 10974387

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