As those of you who read these blogs regularly will know, plans to cut pharmacy services by what might be anything up to a quarter threaten our sector and our health service. The Department of Health announced these plans just before Christmas (quite the gift!) and ever since, pharmacists and patients have been campaigning hard to ask ministers and officials to reconsider.
Last month, over 1.8 million signatures were delivered to 10 Downing street, with MPs from three political parties backing the campaign. Pharmacists, patients and MPs stood together to show the huge breadth of support for pharmacies across the country. Michael Dugher MP then led a parliamentary debate with the Minister of State for Community and Social Care, Alistair Burt, discussing the impact that they may have on patients across the country.
One aspect of these plans was the introduction of "hub and spoke" dispensing - an idea that was designed to save pharmacies money through a central dispensary which would theoretically reduce operating costs. Our research found no evidence that operating costs would be reduced, indeed that costs may actually rise through procurement and end up adding costs to the taxpayer. There are many issues, both legal and otherwise, that need to be resolved before hub-and-spoke dispensing could become a practical reality. The NPA has been at the forefront of the independent pharmacy sector in raising a growing chorus of concerns.
Thankfully, these concerns were heard. Alistair Burt has agreed that responses to the consultation have raised issues and now does not plan to implement the changes in October as originally planned.
I applaud the government for listening and for putting a hold on these plans. It is a victory for common sense.
This hub & spoke idea was however one of the cornerstones of the government's plans for pharmacies, and since they believed it could save money, must represent some proportion of the proposed £170 million cuts to the pharmacy budget. At the very least the announcement to delay it surely calls into question the timing of the funding cuts, proposed to come into effect in October.
If the government now recognises that a hub and spoke dispensing model will actually cost more money, then the entire policy package that they proposed should be implemented in December must be sense checked in the light of this development.
It's to the credit of Ministers and officials that they have shifted the position in response to overwhelming evidence and reasoned arguments. The whole pharmacy sector now hopes that they will show the same degree of mature reflection in relation to other elements of their proposals.
Since Christmas, nearly 2 million people have signed our petition to ask the government to reconsider its plans. MPs from all parties have shown their support to this vital and in some cases life-saving frontline NHS resource.
Instead of cutting the pharmacy budget, as GPs and A&E departments all over the country strive to keep up with record numbers while implement ever-increasing efficiency savings, we propose that the government continues to work with the NPA and the rest of the sector in listening to all of the ways that pharmacy could actually alleviate pressure on a health service that is already struggling.
In the meantime we plan to continue to campaign on this issue. If you haven't done so already, please sign the Parliamentary ePetition to ask MPs to debate these plans further.