CPNI chief executive Gerard Greene

Amid growing concerns over the community pharmacy funding crisis in Northern Ireland, a number of suppliers and wholesalers have written to the Department of Health (DHNI) to warn that pharmacies’ inability to pay their bills could cause serious disruption to the supply of medicines.

One wholesaler said it was seeing increasing numbers of pharmacies failing to pay their bills. Representative body Community Pharmacy Northern Ireland says pharmacies are resorting to using pension funds and savings in order to pay suppliers, and says wholesalers have warned that “they have no other option but to call time on local community pharmacists.” Patients will feel the brunt of this, claims CPNI.

CPNI says the DHNI is knowingly underfunding the sector, having been aware for “some time” that these issues would ultimately affect patient safety. It says a report commissioned by the DHNI advises that the sector requires £130m in funding in order to operate safely, but that the Department is “wilfully ignoring” this.

CPNI chief executive Gerard Greene commented: “It is not surprising to learn that several wholesalers have contacted the Department regarding this. We have been telling them for some time that community pharmacy is on its knees and cannot pay its bills.

“We have seen correspondence which shows that the Department was warned some time ago by a major wholesaler that the supply of medicines to patients could grind to a halt.

“We have also been warning the Department that the failure to resolve this issue will have direct consequences for patient safety. This is now becoming a reality with the warning from wholesalers that there is an imminent danger of pharmacies failing and patients being unable to obtain their medicines.

“From a recent survey of our members we were truly shocked to learn that many of them have had to use pension funds and savings to plug gaps and pay suppliers and keep providing medicines to their patients.

“What is more difficult to understand is the fact that we have political support across the board for an improvement of the pharmacy contract, as well as direction from the last Health Minister Michelle O’Neill to sort this out.

“The sheer intransigence of the Department in resolving this situation will result in pharmacies closing and will reduce people’s access to a vital health service, impacting hugely upon patient safety.”

“Funding of at least £130m is required for a safe community pharmacy service in Northern Ireland. The Department knows that but has been wilfully ignoring this reality for some time.”

CPNI chair John Clark added: “Consistent underfunding of the community pharmacy network means that many community pharmacists can no longer afford to keep to their credit terms with suppliers and wholesalers.

“These are pharmacists who have been running successful pharmacy businesses for years but who now face having to ask wholesalers for extensions to credit terms because the Department is not paying them adequately for the medicines they dispense. 

“If wholesalers have to start refusing credit to community pharmacies this could affect all types of medicines and we have no idea of what types. At the moment, all medicine supplies are at risk.

“At a time when the health service is under severe strain, pharmacists provide a walk-in service that requires no appointment. That is of massive importance to many people, not least of which are those who are older, vulnerable and take a combination of medicines for complex conditions. Pharmacists provide fundamental advice and support to those people to ensure they manage their medicines in a safe way.

“It is of huge concern that many patients will now be at risk of going without medicines simply because the Department refuses to acknowledge a problem it has been warned about for some time.”

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