The government has accused the Coalition of standing in the way of millions of Australians accessing cheaper medicines, as they seek to delay the rollout of 60-day dispensing.
On Wednesday, senators Anne Ruston and Bridget McKenzie said if Labor didn’t pause their 60-day dispensing policy – set to come into effect on September 1 – they would move a disallowance motion.
It came a day after the powerful Pharmacy Guild called on the government to pause its dispensing rollout, citing a new survey that showed “hundreds of pharmacies are reducing opening hours, cutting staff and increasing fees for services”.
The Greens have indicated they do not support the Opposition’s bid, and unless they can convince crossbench senators such as David Pocock and Jacqui Lambie, it’s unlikely the Coalition would get the numbers to pass the motion through the Senate.
Senator Ruston, the opposition’s health spokeswoman, said there were “legitimate concerns” that the policy “could see community pharmacies close down and result in vulnerable Australians paying more for their healthcare”.
“The government must get this right and so far, they have shown no ability to do so,” she said.
“Otherwise, there will be significant and foreseeable risks for Australians who need support, particularly people in rural and regional communities, aged care residents and patients with chronic diseases.”
Pharmacists have previously warned the plan – which would allow millions of Australians access to two months worth of prescription medicines at a time – would prompt mass closures and thousands of job losses.
Health Minister Mark Butler said the government was committed to the policy, which would be “good for the hip pocket”.
“This halves the cost of these medicines for patients. But it’s also good for health and it frees up millions of GP consults that we desperately need for important health conditions rather than routine scripts being issued by doctors,” Mr Butler said.
“This has been supported by every significant patient group in the country and every doctor’s group as well.”
He said the government would not pause its policy, but any such disallowance motion would need to be “dealt with quickly” given parliament rises on Thursday afternoon, and the policy comes into effect before it returns.
“The Senate now has a choice over the next 24 hours to either allow access to cheaper medicines, as recommended by the medical experts and as supported by every patient and doctor group, or really, accept the position of the Coalition and the pharmacy lobby,” Mr Butler said.
“I need to be clear about the consequences of disallowing. This measure will not only block access to cheaper medicines for six million Australians, but $1.2bn worth of investment in community pharmacy for the benefit of customers will also need to be withdrawn because they are funded by the savings.”
Asked why he wouldn’t consider a pause on the policy to allow more time for consultation, Mr Butler said the option “was not put to us”.
“Because the Coalition backed the pharmacy lobby instead of six million patients, those patients have shelled out hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars that the medicines experts who manage the PBS say they shouldn’t have had to pay,“ he said.
Greens health spokesman Jordan Steele-John said the community had been crying out for changes to dispensing rules, and the party would not support the Coalition’s bid.
“We are incredibly proud that after years of the Greens calling for the change, the government has agreed to support better access to medicines for people with opioid dependency,” he said.