Political divide erupts as Barnaby Joyce and Tanya Plibersek clash over controversial medication access plan

Jun 20, 2023
Controversial proposed medication access plan sparks debate and concerns over its impact on pharmacies and healthcare accessibility. Source: Getty

A heated debate has erupted between former Nationals Leader Barnaby Joyce and Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek, bringing the proposed medication access plan into the spotlight once again.

The plan aims to grant Australians the opportunity to purchase double the amount of common medicines for the price of a single script, provided their GP approves.

While presented as a cost-saving measure, the plan has come under fire over its implications for various stakeholders.

With estimates suggesting that up to 665 pharmacies may close and 20,000 jobs could be slashed, concerns are mounting over the impact on accessibility, healthcare services in remote areas, and aged care facilities.

Appearing on Sunrise, Plibersek defended the measure, saying it was a “good policy”.

“Don’t forget every single dollar through this policy is being reinvested into pharmacies so pharmacies will be able to do things like give vaccinations, they’ll be able to do outreach into aged care,” she said.

Joyce, who was not convinced by Plibersek’s defence, repeatedly questioned the Environment Minister on the impact the policy would have on regional and remote chemists.

Plibersek argued it would be “better for patients”, while an angry Joyce argued, “it’s not.”

“When we lose frontline services, that is not good for patients. ‘Cos once you lose the chemist from a town who is going to supply the drugs to the aged care facility,” Joyce said.

“Every dollar goes into pharmacies,” Plibersek countered.

“No, it doesn’t Tanya. Read the pharmacy–” Joyce started to say before Plibersek snapped and ordered him to “stop yelling”.

Sunrise host Natalie Barr finally interjects and asked Joyce to “just take a breath” before questioning why he was opposed to the policy.

According to Joyce, if remote chemists shut down regional Australians risk having to travel further for their medication, potentially wiping out any savings they would have made from the price cut.

“The people in regional areas are not rich,” he said.

According to data from the Therapeutic Goods Admninistration’s (TGA) medicine shortage database as of May 23, 2023, more than 495 medicines were facing a supply shortage.

Of those, shortages for 73 medicines were “anticipated” while 422 were “current”.

Joyce isn’t the only one against the pharmacy reform. In April, Pharmacy Guild of Australia President Trent Twomey criticised the proposed plan and expressed frustration over the government’s lack of concern for the impact on small businesses, stating that “they just don’t care”.

“So what [Mark] Butler was saying about ‘we’re reinvesting all the money’, that’s just the savings he’s having,” Twomey said.

“He [Butler] only wants to give back 1.2 [billion] because that’s what the taxpayer’s funding.

“But the pharmacist is wearing the complete rest of the cut, and that’s what’s gonna send these guys to the wall. And he just doesn’t seem to give a s**t.

“I’m a North Queenslander, I don’t mean to swear, but they just don’t care.

“You know, this is supposed to be a government that cares. This is not how one operates.”

Starting on May 1, 2023, over 300 prescription medications will be available at half price in the hopes of making it easier and cheaper for those with chronic conditions who spend a lot on medication.

Medicines for conditions such as heart disease, cholesterol, Crohn’s disease, and hypertension will be included in the new policy, which is expected to deliver budget savings by reducing patients’ visits to the GP to obtain the common medicines they need.

Patients will also be able to buy a two-month supply of subsidised medicines on a single prescription, instead of two separate ones.

Those who receive medications prescribed for 60 days rather than 30 days could save up to $180 a year, with additional savings for other qualifying medications.

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