A major stoush has broken out within the pharmacy sector following a heavy-handed attempt by the Pharmacy Guild to force the Pharmaceutical Society of Australia to withdraw a submission to the Government on the role of pharmacists in proposed GP Superclinics.

The Pharmacy Guild represents some 4,500 pharmacy owners, and has successfully protected one of the great anti-competitive rorts of the Australian economy — chemist shops — from all comers, including Big Retail, for years. The PSA represents about 18,000 pharmacists, the great majority of whom do not own pharmacies but work in them, or work in hospitals or as consultants. A simplistic analogy is to regard the PSA as a union and the Guild as an employers’ group, albeit one heavily dependent on Government regulation.

The stoush was initially reported in Pharmacy Daily on Friday after the Guild issued a communication to its membership on Thursday that included a demand for the immediate withdrawal of the PSA’s paper. The Guild’s communication also contained a savage assault on the PSA, accusing it of having “revealed its true colours”, “completely undermining future strategies for community pharmacy” in favour of an “elitist group of Medicare funded pharmacists”.

At the centre of the fight is the role of pharmacists in the government’s GP superclinic proposal, which is intended to establish better coordination of care by bringing together a range of health services in the one location. To protect the central role of chemist shops, the Guild has argued strongly that pharmacist-owned dispensaries should be co-located with the centres. The PSA’s position paper proposes that, where this is not possible, a pharmacist should work with other health professionals within the superclinic structure to better coordinate care.

The Guild’s response is said by sources within the sector to be typical of its bullying behaviour toward the PSA. There is fierce resentment toward the Guild within non-owner ranks, and considerable anger has been directed toward the Guild’s reaction in fora such as Auspharm enews, and particularly the perception that it is solely looking after the interests of owners. There are also suggestions that the over-the-top response from the Guild reflects internal manoeuvring ahead of elections later this year.

For its part, the Guild says that its executive is appalled that the PSA, with which it has collaborated extensively, failed to consult them before releasing its paper. The Guild has been working hard for years to arrest the drift of pharmacy owners toward retail by emphasising the full range of professional services that pharmacies can provide, and the PSA proposal undermines this model.

However, PSA sources say it simply reflects the Guild’s determination to ensure its heavily-protected model isn’t threatened by policies that focus on greater continuity and coordination of care for patients.

The Guild has been one of Australia’s most successful lobbyists. Only the free-to-air TV networks and, to a lesser extent, newsagents, have so successfully managed to convince governments to perpetuate anti-competitive arrangements that directly benefit them. The Guild has long relied on its capacity to use its retail network to directly talk to voters — especially pensioners — about the merits or otherwise of Government policy. But it’s not all intimidation.

In 2006-07, the Guild gave Federal ALP $25,500 and a further $51,000 to NSW Labor, and nearly $20,000 to Queensland Labor. The Federal Liberals got $19,500, with more than $5000 for the WA branch (presumably in the form of inhalers), nearly $40,000 to the Victorian Liberals, over $30,000 to the Queensland Liberals and more than $42,000 to the NSW Liberals.

The demand that another organisation withdraw a Government submission, however, is unprecedented. Some non-owner pharmacists saying that it is time that they stood up to the power of the Guild.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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