Crisis reaches breaking point warn pharmacists

FEARS are high that pharmacies could close across the borough due to what has been described as ‘the worst financial crisis in living memory’.

Fourteen community pharmacies have closed in Northern Ireland in the last 12 months, including one in Bangor, and one of the city’s longest serving pharmacists has warned others could follow.

Pharmacist Garret Maguire has voiced concerns that colleagues are ‘living hand to mouth from one month to the next’ due to an ‘outdated Department of Health funding model’. 

Mr Maguire, who took part in a Day of Action last week, said pharmacists are not being reimbursed the full costs of the prescription medicines they are dispensing.

Mr Maguire, who has operated a pharmacy in Bangor’s High Street for over 28 years, said local pharmacies were facing ‘the worst financial crisis amongst community pharmacies in living memory’. 

The local pharmacist and his team lent their support to last Thursday’s day of action called ‘One Day to Save Our Pharmacies’ – chosen because ‘from the 20th of the month a typical community pharmacy starts to work for free’.

Mr Maguire explained that according to analysis by the National Pharmacy Association (NPA) ‘there is typically only enough NHS funding to cover costs for the first three weeks of the month’. 

For the remainder of each month, Mr Maguire says that pharmacy owners are subsidising work ‘they should be paid to do by the government’.

The UK-wide day of ‘black out’ protests, led by the National Pharmacy Association, saw pharmacy lights turned off and staff wore black to symbolise the dark times being faced.    

Mr Maguire said that despite the symbolic action taken last Thursday, pharmacies remained open throughout the day to serve patients and the wider community.

“The chronic underfunding of our sector means that the risk to the supply of medicines to patients continues,” he said. “Pharmacy contractors are facing a constant juggle to pay medicine suppliers on time each month. 

“Every month pharmacies are comparing their medicine bills to the funding they receive and the figures simply don’t add up, regularly falling short of what it takes to run a pharmacy and they are at a loss of what to do next.”

Said Mr Maguire: “This increasing frustration isn’t isolated to one pharmacy, in one village or town but is echoed across the entire community pharmacy network.”

He said community pharmacies were ‘struggling’ to meet medicine wholesaler and other business commitments due to a ‘combination of chronic underfunding and the funding model’. 

He further explained the current drug tariff means community pharmacies here are typically paid less for the actual cost of generic and brand medicines than in the other UK regions.  

He said the pharmacy network is also ‘increasingly dealing with more complex health queries from patients’ and that ‘pharmacists are highly skilled clinicians who want to do more to support patients, but resources need to be in place to support this’.

Saying that local pharmacies were ‘reaching breaking point’, Mr Maguire said they were ‘urgently’ calling for further investment in the community pharmacy network to  maintain medicines supplies to pharmacies and patients. 

They were also asking for an agreed community pharmacy contract and a drug tariff specific to Northern Ireland that would ‘underpin a stabilised and fair pharmacy contract and funding arrangements’. 

North Down MLA Stephen Dunne  expressed his support for local community pharmacies taking part in a day of protest against unstable NHS funding.

“Our local community pharmacies play a vital role in easing pressure on GPs and hospitals,” he said. “Despite this key role, it is clear that local pharmacies are not receiving adequate support to allow them to continue to provide the necessary medicines to residents whilst also remaining viable businesses.”