Help for the hip pocket

Date: 18 February 2022

This article was first published in the Daily Telegraph on Wednesday 9 February 2022.

Pharmacy patients are struggling to afford essential medicines as the cost of living rises. Sally Makram, a community pharmacist in Lidcombe in western Sydney, is one of many community pharmacy members becoming increasingly concerned about medicine affordability.

Sometimes patients ask Sally if they have to take all of the medicines they have been prescribed by to manage their blood pressure or their cholesterol. Can’t they only take one, they want to know. Two or three just aren’t affordable. They have household essentials to budget for and family members who also need medicines. Of course Sally explains to them that they should take all of the medicines the doctor has prescribed in combination. But she knows they can’t always prioritise their long-term health when the immediate pressures on them are mounting.

Petrol alone is up by 7 per cent. The cost of groceries is also rising. And the cost of medicines listed on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) went up again on January 1 this year. Sally’s patients know exactly what a litre of milk or petrol is going to cost them and they’re trying to work out how on earth they’re going to afford them while continuing to treat their chronic conditions.

I know that it’s not just Sally’s patients who are increasingly feeling the pressure. My wife and I see patients with the exact same dilemma at our pharmacies in Far North Queensland. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, more than 900,000 Australians delayed or didn’t get a script filled in 2019-20 due to cost. This is a ticking time bomb for the health system: people who don’t take the medicines they are prescribed will need to rely more on health services in future. They are also at risk of living less full personal and professional lives.

Independent research firm Insightfully looked deeper into the matter. The research shows that close to a third (31 per cent) of middle-income households earning between $60,000 and $100,000 who don’t have a concession card are struggling to afford PBS medications.

These are people who pay their taxes and work hard to provide for their families. Just because they don’t qualify for a concession card doesn’t mean they’re on easy street. And women between the ages of 35 and 54 years old are the hardest hit. These are the forgotten women. I’ve seen them tear up with anxiety that they won’t be able to afford the medications their kids need – or deciding to skip medications for themselves in order to make ends meet.

As pharmacists who are very connected to our communities, we know that something has to be done to help these people. They need a voice, they need their struggles to be taken seriously. And we’re determined to help them in this.

The research confirmed what other polls have found: that the pandemic has shifted the public’s priorities from the economy to health. The 15 electorates surveyed, including some of Australia’s most marginal federal seats, found that the cost of living and healthcare are priorities in these parts of the nation.

One of most affected areas is the NSW electorate of Dobell, covering Wyong, Tuggerah and Bateau Bay. One in five people in this area have gone without prescribed medicines – 20 per cent against the average 13 per cent in other seats. Here 37 per cent of of women aged between 35 and 54 who don’t have a concession card have struggled to afford medicines compared to 32 per cent who don’t have concession cards across the 15 seats we surveyed. We also surveyed Macquarie, covering the Blue Mountains and the Hawkesbury, as well as Reid, which covers Strathfield, Burwood and Auburn. Sally Makram’s pharmacy is in that electorate.

Sally reckons it’s a matter of basic fairness for everyone to be able to access the medicines they need. I’d go further. I think that when medicines become unaffordable, it means that there’s no real universal access to the PBS, which is the foundation of our healthcare system. Since the January 1 price rise, people are paying up to $42.50 per script for medicines needed for life-threatening conditions like asthma, diabetes and depression. And women are bearing the brunt of it.

That’s why the Pharmacy Guild of Australia is raising the alarm now, so that these women who weave together the heart and the hard work of Australia, who we depend on to raise their families as well as pay their taxes, who just want to ensure that their families are healthy and happy and loved, don’t get crushed by the faceless juggernaut of inflation. Sally and I and all the community pharmacists around the nation want these women to be able to make themselves heard. The Pharmacy Guild of Australia believes that medicine affordability matters because none of us should have to choose between the medicines we need and other non-discretionary essentials.

Yours sincerely,

Trent Twomey

National President

The Pharmacy Guild of Australia

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Page last updated on: 18 February 2022