Calls grow to make medicines cheaper for those ‘feeling the crunch’

Mar 27, 2023
In the lead-up to the May budget, the Federal Government is being called on to make medicines more affordable. Source: Getty Images.

In the lead-up to the May budget, the Federal Government is being called on to make medicines more affordable, while also reducing the administrative burden of prescribing them.

The goal is to free up more time for general practitioners to dedicate to their patients.

The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) are among those leading the charge, claiming that the May Budget “is an opportunity for government to reduce cost of living pressures for Australians”.

Some of the reforms the RACGP proposes include:

  • extending the length of prescriptions to save patients money and time;
  • allowing a larger supply of medicines in one go – a two-month supply would halve dispensing fees, which cost taxpayers $1.67 billion in 2021-22;
  • investigating the benefits of removing the $1 discount rule, which caps discounts on medicines;
  • overhauling Australia’s anti-competitive pharmacy ownership and location laws which inflate costs for patients;
  • make prescribing faster and easier for GPs so they have more time for patient care by streamlining the Pharmaceutical Benefits Schedule (PBS) prescribing system, which is unnecessarily complex.
Source: Getty Images.

RACGP President Dr Nicole Higgins explained that Australia has “a cost-of-living crisis and a health system crisis on our hands”.

“People across Australia are feeling the crunch and struggling to access or afford the healthcare and medicines they need,” Higgins said.

“But there are simple reforms the government can and should make that will save patients’ money and time, as well as freeing up GPs so we can see more patients, and reducing the overall healthcare budget.

“This includes extending the length of prescriptions. If GPs could give longer prescriptions of 15-months instead of the usual 6-months to suitable patients, it would make a big difference. GPs should have the flexibility to decide what’s right for their patients.

“Another easy way to lower costs is to allow patients to get a larger supply of medicines in one go by increasing the supply interval for certain medicines. This will save the government money on dispensing fees which could in turn be used to further subsidise patient care.”

Higgins stressed that “these reforms are an easy way to help those most in need, including people who are older and those with chronic conditions who often need multiple medicines.”

“It will save money for individual patients, as well as significant savings for the overall health budget and taxpayers. The cost of dispensing was $1.67 billion in 2021-22, a two-month interval would cut this by half,” she said.

“The government needs to stem the bleeding in this Budget by providing urgent relief to Australians facing growing out-of-pocket costs for healthcare. And we are continuing to call for an increase in Medicare rebates, including for longer complex consultations.

“The government should also use the Budget to act on these reforms to make medicines cheaper and easier to access. It is an easy way to help Australians battling rising costs at a time when they really need it, as well as reducing overall healthcare costs, and freeing up GPs to spend more time with patients.”

Source: Getty Images.

The Australian Medical Association (AMA) has also joined the chorus of voices calling for reforms to make medicines prescribed by doctors cheaper by allowing pharmacies to discount pharmaceutical benefits scheme (PBS) medicines that have a co-payment.

AMA President Steve Robson said the move would help consumers who are skipping medicines because of the cost.

Research released by the Grattan Institute research last year found ‘nearly 50 per cent of the out-of-pocket payments by people with at least one chronic condition are on prescribed medications’ and that ‘people with chronic illness skip pharmaceuticals at 2.5 times the rate of people without a chronic condition’.

According to Robson, it is detrimental for both patients and the healthcare system when individuals opt out of taking their medication due to financial constraints. This often leads to patients experiencing deterioration in their health, and in some cases, requiring emergency medical attention.

“The AMA has proposed a simple policy solution that won’t hurt the budget bottom line but will make a significant difference to patients. Allowing pharmacies greater opportunities to discount medicines will make medicines more affordable and encourage competition,” Robson said.

“The government should be encouraging innovation, and we can do that by allowing pharmacies to discount medicines which have a PBS co-pay. Best of all, we don’t need the taxpayer to foot the bill.”

Recent figures revealed that in 2020–21, the Australian Government recorded $13.9 billion in spending on all PBS and RPBS medicines, or $541 per person, with over half of PBS and RPBS medicines dispensed to people aged 65 and over (54 per cent).

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