THOUSANDS of pharmacies across England could be forced to close amid a drug price dispute with the Government.
Rural pharmacies, in particular, are under grave threat, as they could cut off a vital line of healthcare for the most vulnerable.
The crisis surrounds the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) fails to efficiently reimburse pharmacies that have been hit by a massive increase in drug prices by wholesalers.
Leading industry voices say community pharmacies in England, which number 11,522, are now at a “breaking point” and are being “squeezed on all fronts”.
The Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee (PSNC), the body that negotiates drug prices with the government on behalf of pharmacy owners, told The Sun that the threat of closure is real.
“We believe that hundreds, possibly thousands of pharmacies could close, mainly due to price concessions, but also due to a combination of other factors,” a spokesperson said.
“Now more than ever, pharmacies are on the edge.
“Patient services are at risk and we risk losing that vital link to local healthcare.
“The government is making it difficult for pharmacies to run financially.”
The crux of the matter is the Government Drug Tariff, which outlines what pharmaceutical contractors will be paid for National Health Service services, by reimbursement or remuneration.
The NHS Prescription Services prepare the Drug Tariff on a monthly basis on behalf of the DHSC.
But if a pharmacy can’t get a drug at or below reimbursement price, it’s left to foot the often hefty bill.
There is a concession system under which pharmacies can claim the money, but it is bogged down with red tape, delays and disagreements over prices, often leaving pharmacies out of pocket.
And for smaller community pharmacies this could be fatal.
“We are being pressured on all fronts,” said Dr Layla Hannbeck, chief executive of the Independent Multiple Pharmacies Association, which represents 4,000 pharmacies in England.
“It is a very complicated system and the number of common drugs that have gone up significantly in price is high, it is becoming unreal.
“For example, the drug anastrozole, a hormone treatment, used to cost around £1.10, now it’s £60.
“Prednisolone, which is a normal steroid, is another one that has gone up in price, yesterday it might have been £1 and today it’s £40-£50.”
Dr. Hannbeck also gave the example of another medication called aripiprazole, a common medication used to treat acid reflux.
She says the cost has skyrocketed so much that the average pharmacy incurs a loss of at least £8,000 a month on that drug alone.
“Until the department (DHSC) raises the price that is reimbursed, many pharmacies cannot pay the wholesale bills.
“We will see over the next year the number of pharmacies in England go down in numbers, it’s already starting to happen.
“What people don’t understand is that 90% of the activity of an independent pharmacy is related to the NHS.
“So if they don’t get reimbursed for the drugs, they’re going to go bankrupt, it’s as simple as that.”
Dr. Hannbeck added that while wholesalers are passing on their increased costs by raising drug prices, pharmacy owners can’t offload their costs onto the people who use the service.
The PSNC, which is pressing the government to change, added: “The government has said it is not concerned about some closures, but this could be whole swathes of community pharmacies.
“And of course, if you don’t have control of what happens there, if you just let market forces act, then it could be that in some areas, particularly rural areas, people are a long way from a pharmacy.
“And the funding follows the activity, a pharmacy in a rural area may not do many prescriptions, but of course they are a lifeline for people.”