With the country in the midst of (or trying to avoid) election fever, it feels as though Australians are being asked to throw their support behind one party or another. But despite the promises being made by the country’s political parties, big and small, there’s another battle for consumer support taking place in Australian pharmacies.

The Pharmacy Guild is asking Aussies to support their request for Government to speed up compensation for losses pharmacies will make under changes to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) announced three weeks ago. The Guild’s argument is that this loss of income will force some pharmacies to close, and is calling on consumers to help save their local pharmacy.

On the other hand, key consumer advocacy organisations, the Consumers Health Forum (CHF), CHOICE and the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS), are claiming that the existing agreement with pharmacies means that Australians are paying up to 10 times more for prescription medicines than those living in the UK or New Zealand.

The cost of medicines is always a sensitive issue. Governments everywhere are trying to get the best deals on medications for their citizens, which is why we have programs like the PBS and the Life Saving Drugs Program (LSDP) in Australia, and bodies such as the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee(PBAC) that work with industry to make medications available in the most cost-effective way to those who need them.

So, who’s right? Well, both sides are in agreement that the changes announced by the Federal Government to the PBS, which will make many PBS medicines cheaper, are good. The changes will save the Federal Government $835 million over four years starting in 2014-2015, and are part of the implementation of PBS Reform and the price disclosure mechanism, which was introduced more than five years ago.

The Pharmacy Guild says these changes, which were made without consultation, will affect the bottom line of pharmacies by about $30,000 a year, in addition to a $60,000 impact from existing arrangements. The Guild says this breaches the Pharmacy Agreement which is supposed to provide certainty to pharmacies over a fiveyear period, so they’re calling on the Government to compensate pharmacies for this loss, warning that some, particularly in rural and remote areas, may be forced out of business.

CHF, CHOICE and ACOSS claim that compensation will only make it harder for governments to fund medications and add new treatments to the PBS, and that pharmacies already receive generous financial and competitive protection from Government. They say that compensating pharmacies will limit the Government’s ability to provide cheaper medicines at a time when many are struggling to afford prescriptions.

In an interesting twist, the Guild is now placing pressure on Prime Minister Rudd to sign their petition.

With PBS transparency a key political issue for those in the health provider space, it will be interesting to see how this plays out – and whether shouting the loudest results in greater public support.