Coalition blinks first on double dispensing vote

4 minute read

A busy day (and night) of trading threats in Canberra ends in a narrow win for the policy.

It was the Pharmacy Guild of Australia’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day in Canberra today, as the Opposition failed to put together a disallowance motion on 60-day dispensing in the Senate.

Speaking out front of Parliament House early today, leaders from the RACGP, AMA and Consumers Health Forum made one last plea to the Coalition not to block double dispensing.

“This [policy] has been five years in the making and it was recommended to government by the experts,” RACGP president Dr Nicole Higgins said.

“Four years ago, the Coalition folded under pressure from pharmacy owners.

“We need to put our patients first, we need to provide relief and we need to make sure that the Senate does what’s best for Australia today.”

After remaining tight-lipped on its position regarding Labor’s double dispensing policy, on Tuesday morning Shadow Assistant Minister for Regional Health Dr Anne Webster called for a pause on the rollout – which has not yet begun.

She cited a Guild survey that revealed that, despite the new regime only beginning next month, “almost one in four of the 1000 community pharmacies surveyed have reduced opening hours and 54 per cent have increased fees for services”.

Dr Webster’s statement was backed up by Shadow Health Minister Anne Ruston, who said the Coalition would move to disallow the 60-day dispensing instrument if the government did not delay the policy.

If successful, it would have effectively blocked double dispensing.

It was truly a last-ditch effort, too – today was the last sitting day before the policy will come into effect in September.

The Coalition hold 31 seats in the Senate, while Labor only has 26.

For either party to form a majority and either defeat or successfully move the disallowance motion, they need assistance from the minor parties and independent senators, of which there are currently 19.

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The Greens – which had previously been silent on the issue – were quick to announce that they would side with Labor, bringing the pro-double dispensing side to 37 votes out of the 39 it would need to defeat the motion.

Pauline Hanson’s One Nation and Liberal-turned-independent senator David Van sided with the LNP, bringing the anti-double dispensing vote to 34.

Health Minister Mark Butler was said to have worked late into Tuesday night trying to confirm support from independent senator David Pocock and minor party senators Jacqui Lambie and Tammy Tyrrell.

The two Jacqui Lambie Network senators could have gone either way.

Throughout the week, Ms Tyrrell had been publicly expressing concern over the potential effect of 60-day dispensing on pharmacies as small businesses and warning that costs would be passed on to patients.

Senator Lambie, meanwhile, dubbed the Pharmacy Guild tactics “disgusting” and said it was using older Australians as ammunition.

Here, she was referring to the Guild’s recent claim that people in aged care would have to pay an additional $800 per year for their medicines because pharmacies would no longer be able to afford to pack and deliver medicines for free.

But Mr Butler, who called the $800 claim a “cynical scare campaign” earlier in the week, pulled out possibly the biggest trump card of them all.

At a snap press conference late yesterday, Mr Butler threatened the future of the all-important community pharmacy agreement.

The CPA is renegotiated by the government with the Pharmacy Guild and now the Pharmaceutical Society of Australia every five years and tends to contain commitments on the part of the government to fund or invest in community pharmacy programs.

As a peace offering to the sector, Mr Butler announced on Monday that he would bring forward negotiations of the eighth CPA by one year, with scope for it to come into effect earlier as well.

Yesterday, he made it clear that this offer hinged on 60-day dispensing coming into action.

“If the Senate decides to block access to cheaper medicines, as I said, there’s obviously no need to bring forward negotiations for the eighth Community Pharmacy Aareement,” he said.

He then went a step further.

“[The current agreement] would continue to run its course until mid-2025 and we reserve our rights in relation to future arrangement,” Mr Butler said.

If the agreement were to lapse without a new one in place, pharmacy remuneration would revert back to pre-1990 settings – given the landscape has shifted so much over that time, it’s unclear what that would even look like.

“Obviously, our preferred position, our strongly preferred position, is that the Senate supports the interests of six million patients and delivers this cheaper medicines measure,” Mr Butler said.

This morning, the Coalition withdrew its disallowance motion, meaning the policy will keep to its slated start date of 1 September.

In withdrawing the motion, the Opposition asked the government to take its act in “good faith” and to keep negotiations with the Guild running.

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