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Government to turn down OFT proposal

 

Extract from The Guardian, Thursday March 20 2003.

Patricia Hewitt, the trade and industry secretary, yesterday signalled that she would side with small pharmacies against a massive shake-up in the way they operate.

She hinted that she would turn down recommendations to deregulate the market, at present governed by rules allowing the NHS to control where prescription drugs are dispensed.

Ms Hewitt said such proposals, made by the office for fair trading in January, would interfere with government plans to widen the local role of pharmacies within the NHS.

She told the Commons there were "limits to markets, particularly in the delivery of health services", as she surprised MPs and other critics of such proposals by voicing her own reservations.

The OFT believes that NHS controls over the supply of prescription drugs have helped to stifle companies seeking new ways of making medicines available.

Supermarkets have already indicated that they would open 500 pharmacies - nearly doubling their stake in the market - if the proposals went ahead.

The Department of Health, which has also had strong concerns about the proposals, weighed in to endorse Ms Hewitt's intervention. "As the secretary of state for health has repeatedly said, pharmacists are trained clinicians, not shopkeepers," a spokesman said.

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Opponents of the OFT recommendations, including many members of the public, have lobbied MPs, warning that people living in poor regions or rural areas would find it more difficult to get their medicines. Some critics point out that 80% of the traditional pharmacies' business is the issuing of prescriptions - which are provided either free or at a fixed price - and that plans to switch issuing of repeat prescriptions from GP surgeries to pharmacists could be jeopardised.

There are also some strong suspicions that supermarket pharmacists could not play the increased health advisory role intended for them under the NHS plan in England or under other initiatives in the devolved administrations of Scotland and Wales.

Andrew Dismore, Labour MP for Hendon, raised the issue at Commons questions. He said that hundreds of constituents were outraged at the proposals: "They vigorously protest that their local pharmacies are convenient - they know and trust their pharmacists, often they have got no transport to go elsewhere, and [at the pharmacies] they are not pushed into buying unnecessary products."

John D'Arcy, chief executive of the National Pharmaceutical Association, welcomed Ms Hewitt's intervention.

He said: "Healthcare services, including pharmacy services, have to be planned and managed. We acknowledge that there is always room for improvement and we look forward to working with the government in ensuring that patients enjoy full access to the best in pharmacy services."

The OFT said that the present system had, for the past 15 years, effectively frozen the number of pharmacies - there are about 12,250, nearly all with NHS contracts. A spokesman said: "We look forward to seeing the package of measures the government puts forward."

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