In the wake of reports of a funding crisis in Northern Ireland’s community pharmacy sector threatening widespread closures and potentially disrupting the supply of medicines, the Department of Health (Northern Ireland) has announced additional funding of up to £11.1m.
Representative body Community Pharmacy Northern Ireland has consistently said the sector is being underfunded by £20m and described the funding allocation as a “sticking plaster” that “totally fails” to address the issue.
The additional funding consists of: £9m to relieve “immediate pressures within the community pharmacy network and support services for patients in social care settings” and support pharmacies in rural locations; and "up to" £2.1m in ‘transformation funding’ for a Pharmacy First service this winter, which the DHNI says “will be the first point of contact for patients” for several common conditions.
The additional allocations will be made available up to March 2020, DHNI says, and come on top of confirmed annual funding of £104m for 2018-19 and 2019-20.
The Department added that “consideration is also being given to further proposals for transformation funding to increase access to pharmaceutical care for patients, utilise the expertise of pharmacists, promote professional cooperation and build capacity in the health system.”
DHNI permanent secretary Richard Pengelly said: “The additional funding being announced today (Friday November 16) will help ensure that local populations have access to the most visited provider among all of the health services available.
“I would like to thank the individual community pharmacy contractors who I met personally to discuss the challenges facing their businesses.”
The DHNI added that along with the HSCB it is “committed to ensuring that the network of community pharmacies can support the needs of local populations most effectively” and that therefore the HSCB will carry out a needs assessment exercise for community pharmacy services.
Commenting on why the total funding package does not meet the £130m which CPNI says is needed to keep the sector running (a figure the body says is supported by a DHNI-commissioned report), Mr Pengelly said that “intensifying financial pressures across the health and social care sector” had meant the Department was “simply unable to satisfy all of the demands for additional funding.”
CPNI said the Department’s offer was inadequate. Chair John Clark said: “The funding offer put forward by the Department of Health has totally failed to address the funding difficulties that community pharmacy is currently in. Rather than increasing the funding proposals that were under discussion during the summer, the Department has responded today by confirming a reduced level of funding.
“This ‘sticking plaster’ approach is yet again another short-sighted step by the Department. It has been purposefully served to undermine the network and brush us off. These issues will not go away.
“Patients will suffer, medicine supply will be disrupted and pharmacies will be shut. That will have a huge impact on patient safety and will ultimately make the health service much harder to access for thousands of patients.
“Community pharmacists individually and in groups have informed us that they will be taking actions into their own hands and will be reviewing services they can provide to the public going forward. The outlook is bleak.”
CPNI claims the community pharmacy sector has broad political and public support and that the Department’s funding decisions in recent years have gone against this.
Social Democratic and Labour Party group leader on Derry City and Strabane councillor Martin Reilly tabled a motion in support of CPNI’s campaign on Monday November 19, saying: “Each day on average some 123,000 people visit a Community Pharmacy – a network that is dealing with continued under-funding of £20m per year.
"This situation of pharmacies 'dispensing at a loss’ is not sustainable, therefore, I am calling on the Secretary of State and the Department of Health to urgently address these concerns.
"If passed, this resolution will be circulated to councils across Northern Ireland to build up support for this campaign across local government as a means of demonstrating to decision-makers that there is political will across our cities, towns and rural areas for positive action for this sector which plays such an important role in delivering frontline healthcare to our population.”