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‘Enormous pressures’: MPs flag pharmacy funding, workforce and drug supply woes

 A Westminster Hall debate last week saw community pharmacy’s struggles given full voice by MPs.

The debate, held last week (September 14), saw MPs from across the political divide raise the challenges facing community pharmacies.

Opened by MP for Waveney Peter Aldous after he successfully petitioned the Backbench Business Committee in July, it saw seven MPs raise concerns about the state of community pharmacy and a response from pharmacy minister Neil O’Brien.

Mr Aldous warned that community pharmacies could “cease to exist in large swathes of the country” if the government fails to address the “enormous pressures” facing the sector.

Noting the large number of community pharmacy closures since the start of the year, he warned that without urgent reform “the steady stream of closures will turn into a torrent”.


Funding “black hole”


Sir George Howarth, MP for Knowsley and vice chair of the All-Party Pharmacy Group (APPG), pointed to a funding “black hole” of “at least” £67,000 per pharmacy that meant pharmacies were unable to deliver new services.

He noted that independent pharmacies were at a disadvantage to large multiples, as they were “unable to negotiate lower purchasing rates” by bulk purchasing.

Sir Howarth said that at a recent visit to a local pharmacy, he had seen the “relentless” pressure faced by dispensers.

And Ester McVey, MP for Tatton, raised the worries of pharmacist constituents who described to her how they had to sell their pharmacy after the business became “unviable”.

Preet Gill, MP for Birmingham Edgbaston, said that the government’s “sticking-plaster proposals” for the expansion of clinical services in community pharmacy “miss the opportunities that are there”.

The announcement of funding for Pharmacy First, and not for core services, did not take into account the “current cost pressures” felt by community pharmacies, she said.

Ms Gill vowed that “the next Labour government” would shift the locus of care from “acute settings to the community”.


ARRS must be “carefully” managed


MPs also voiced concern about staffing shortfalls in community pharmacies, with health and social care committee (HSCC) chair Steve Brine noting that pharmacies are “struggling” to retain staff due to recruitment into primary care roles via the additional roles reimbursement scheme (ARRS).

Judith Cummins, MP for Bradford South, asked the pharmacy minister how he intended to “carefully” manage ARRS so that community pharmacies were able to recruit, train and retain pharmacist staff.

It comes after Ms Cummins brought a petition of 280 letters to the House of Commons earlier this month (September 6) asking the house to support pharmacies facing a lack of “proper funding”.

Meanwhile, Mr Brine, who is also co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on HIV and AIDS, called on the minister to let community pharmacies provide HIV prevention medication PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis).

He added that the HSCC’s inquiry into pharmacy would hear oral evidence “hopefully” in November.


UK generics crisis


Taiwo Owatemi, MP for Coventry North West and chair of the APPG, focused much of her time on Brexit’s impact on the medicine supply chain.

Ms Owatemi, a registered pharmacist, said that “oversights” in the negotiated exit from the European Union (EU) meant that the EU does not recognise UK-produced generics. 

She said that generics manufacturers were “unable to compete” with their continental rivals and had “no incentive to compete”.

Ms Owatemi added that while the EU had invested “about £20 billion” in generics manufacturing since Brexit, the UK had invested nothing.


Government “monitoring the market”


Addressing the funding concerns raised by all the MPs present at the debate, Mr O’Brien said that the government added “an extra £50 million last and this financial year” in addition to the £2.59 billion available under the contractual framework. 

He added that the government had the “aim of starting Pharmacy First this winter”.

While all MPs had voiced concerns about pharmacy closures, Mr O’Brien instead noted that the number of pharmacies owned by “divesting” large multiples was decreasing, while the number of “small independent pharmacies” was on the rise.

Mr O’Brien said that the government was “monitoring the market very closely as it evolves”, adding that there were still more pharmacies open today than in 2010 and “an awful lot more pharmacists”.

In July, an HSCC review of the government’s pharmacy policy commitments in England found that it has performed inadequately or needs improvement in meeting most of its pledges.

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