Federal health department officials can’t guarantee some Australians won’t pay more for prescription drugs under a new $19 billion agreement with pharmacists.
Department official Felicity McNeill told a Senate committee on Tuesday that there was a tipping point around $23.90, where medicines below that figure could become more expensive, but medicines above that level could become cheaper.
It means about half of all prescription drugs will become more expensive, she said.
But Ms McNeill insists the costs will be borne by the government, or taxpayer funds, rather than individuals.
She says competition will ensure consumers don’t pay more for drugs.
“We don’t anticipate seeing any change in the prices charged in the competitive discounted market,” she said.
But asked by Greens leader Richard Di Natale whether competitive pricing could be guaranteed in rural areas where there may only be one pharmacist, Ms McNeill couldn’t guarantee those patients wouldn’t be charged more.
“That’s a matter for the individual pharmacist and the consumer,” she said.
She also confirmed that the majority of Australia’s 10 most commonly prescribed drugs – including low dosage cholesterol-lowering statins – cost less than $23.90, meaning they could become more expensive.
Ms McNeill said the new pharmacy agreement would provide the health department with detailed data on prices, reassuring the committee that pharmacy remuneration would be subject to a two-year independent review.
Health Minister Sussan Ley last week said new agreements with the Pharmacy Guild and the generic medicines industry could slash the price of common medicines by half.
But critics have argued that changes to the way pharmacists will be paid to dispense prescription drugs, which cuts the link between their remuneration and the price of the medicine, will make cheaper medications more expensive.
The new agreement with the guild will hand pharmacists a 23 per cent higher take than the previous agreement signed five years ago.
Ms McNeill defended the rise saying pharmacist remuneration fell 16 per cent during the previous agreement.