Calls to deregulate Australian pharmacies to increase competition haven’t been met with much support from Greek Australian pharmacists.
An audit conducted by the National Commission of Audit to the Government on the state of the pharmacy industry has suggested removing or softening the location and ownership laws to give consumers more choice.
Currently, the government’s location rules prohibit another pharmacy opening 1.5 kilometres from an existing one.
It also prohibits non-pharmacists from owning a pharmacy, meaning only pharmacists may own, run and operate the business.
“Allowing a wide range of new competitors to enter the market would provide greater access and choice for consumers and, over time, place greater downward pressure on pharmaceutical prices,” the audit said.
“This could involve non-pharmacists owning pharmacies and relaxing location rules allowing pharmacies to collocate in other retail outlets such as supermarkets.”
National president of the Pharmacy Guild of Australia George Tambassis is disappointed that the audit didn’t accept any input from the guild and disagrees that deregulation will benefit consumers.
“The theory is that if you didn’t have location rules there would be more competition but in practise, our location rules have been shown to work really effectively, you get a diverse location of every single pharmacy and yes there’s no clustering, otherwise pharmacies would open up in affluent areas and lower socio-economic areas would not have pharmacies,” he tells Neos Kosmos.
While locations rules exist, Mr Tambassis says they are more flexible than people expect.
“They’re not just under distance criteria, you’re allowed to open pharmacies in country towns, in shopping centres, in hospitals and shopping strips,” he says.
The audit advised lifting ownership rules to allow supermarkets and small business owners to invest in pharmacies to give consumers more choice in where they buy their pharmaceuticals.
In the USA, pharmacists are able to operate in supermarkets, giving consumers the chance to do all their grocery shopping and pick up their medicines in one shop.
The convenience of this scenario might be appealing to customers, but pharmacists fear their expertise will be diminished.
Recent pharmacy graduate and intern at Priceline Pharmacy in Gisborne, Katholiky Mougios, believes the supermarket setting will give customers the idea that getting their prescriptions is just another thing on their shopping list.
“We are qualified to provide professional advice and consultations, and that won’t be available in a bigger setting, in a supermarket or in a warehouse,” she tells Neos Kosmos.
Mr Tambassis believes having pharmacies in supermarkets can also send the wrong message.
“We stay away from alcohol and cigarettes,” he says.
“Most consumers don’t want the duopoly of supermarkets to also contain pharmacies.”
Around 5,400 pharmacies service customers around Australia, but the prospect of opening a new one isn’t easy.
As a recent graduate, Miss Mougios initially had aspirations of opening her own pharmacy one day, but has since had second thoughts.
“That used to be one of my dreams (owning a pharmacy), but seeing how there’s so many restrictions by the government it’s something that I probably won’t be able to achieve,” she admits.
“What’s diminishing our chances is that pharmacies are becoming a bit of a monopoly. There are certain companies that are trying to take over the whole industry. It’s not giving small business owners a chance.”
Big names like Chemist Warehouse, My Chemist and Terry White are making things tough for small local-run pharmacies.
Being more competitive in price has been difficult considering the larger chains are able to fall back on much more capital and bulk buying capabilities.
Pharmaceutical mark-ups has been an issue for many customers, who complain of inflated prices.
Currently, the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme only helps customers if the price of the PBS medicine is over $37.
Anything under that price or not on the PBS list is set by the individual pharmacist.
As a pharmacist himself, Mr Tambassis encourages people to shop around and to ask for a more competitive price from their local pharmacist.
“My recommendation is walk in and say, ‘look, I want this amoxil, I’ve already seen it online, it’s x dollars, are you close to that price?’. And of course we say to them, if that’s the best price you can find online we’ll match it, we don’t want you to go to the next pharmacy.”