Over the counter not over the top
EVER alert to threats to rural services, Agromenes read with concern press reports of significant cuts to the network of community pharmacies. The newspapers headlined the fact that the Chancellor has slashed £200 million from the subsidy for these chemist’s shops. They also revealed private letters to Theresa May from the Treasury and the Department of Health that seemed to suggest budget cuts would mean large-scale rural closures. There were dark hints of the Prime Minister’s personal concern. The scene was set for a campaign by the Countryside Crusader.
However, there was something a bit fishy about those stories. The clarity with which health ministers claimed that no serious reduction is expected made Agromenes pause. It was just too determined to be dismissed as, indeed, was their claim that a special aid scheme would largely prevent rural closures. Are we being frightened unnecessarily or is this a Government cover-up? Agromenes set out to find the truth.
This phrase ‘community pharmacy’ gives the impression that we’re talking about some special category of particularly local and benevolent service provider. It’s just a smart name for chemist and there are more than 11,600 of them across every part of the country, urban and rural. Importantly, the number has increased by 1,555 since 2007, which doesn’t suggest they’re exactly being squeezed.
Nevertheless, campaigners claim that between 500 and 900 are liable to close. This is a much smaller number than they trumpeted last year and has tumbled from 3,000 in May 2016 and 1,600 last October. The closure threat has diminished to between 4% and 8% of a total that has only recently increased by 15%. Indeed, it turns out that 89% of the population has to walk for less than 20 minutes to collect a prescription.
Unsurprisingly, all this costs the taxpayer a great deal of money: £2.687 billion for this year alone. That puts the Chancellor’s reduction of £200 million into context. Of course, pharmacists have a long training and do an important job. In addition to dispensing medicines, they are increasingly taking some of the weight off hard-pressed GPS. The law has been changed to allow them to prescribe and this has enhanced the contribution they can make.
However, modern packaging has made dispensing significantly less complex. It still demands great care and integrity, but, thanks to computers and the internet, the doctor’s illegible handwriting is no longer the problem it was.
That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be paid properly for NHS work, but it does mean that Ministers should look carefully to see that they’re getting really good value for the vast sums it costs. Footfall in retail is everything and it’s the NHS prescriptions that gets customers into the shop. The whole system is a great advantage to the owners of chemist’s shops and enables qualified staff to be paid an average of £40,000 a year, which compares with teachers on about £35,000 and dentists on £47,000.
The real picture begins to emerge. A growing network of profitable businesses and properly paid staff cries wolf over a very limited cut in their NHS payments. Effective special arrangements for truly rural practices are put in place. The screaming headlines turn out to be exaggeration to the point of untruth. The real story is not about cuts, but about a system that could do with some wholesale reform to bring it up to date.
‘Ministers should look carefully to see that they’re getting really good value for money