Cost overrun imperils medicine safety service

TENS of thousands of vulnerable, often elderly, patients could be put at risk if pharmacists suspend a program that helps to ensure their medicines are safe, health groups say.

The Pharmacy Guild of Australia has written to the federal government calling for a moratorium on the Home Medicines Review program, which pays pharmacists to check customers' medications will not make them sick.

About 190,000 hospital admissions each year in Australia are thought to be related to medication use, often due to the use of risky drugs or multiple medicines interacting.

The guild claims the program has exploded through improper use, with thousands of reviews each month causing a budget blow-out that could reach $22 million by July.

But the chief executive of the Consumers Health Forum, Carol Bennett, said stopping the program could cost lives.

''These programs offer enormous benefits to the consumers who most need them, and that's older people, people who take high-risk medications or multiple medications,'' she said.

Research indicated 30 per cent of hospitalisations among elderly people were due to medicine reactions, and as many people as possibly should get the reviews.

''We now have a situation where safety could be put at risk, simply because this program is doing exactly what we want it to do,'' she said.

The chief executive of the National Prescribing Service, Lynn Weekes, said if the program was being misused it should be audited, not taken away from people who needed it. ''These reviews are a really good service that helps cut hospitalisations,'' she said.

The union representing employee pharmacists, APESMA, has written to the Health Minister, Tanya Plibersek, saying cuts to the program would put patients and pharmacist jobs at risk.

The guild called for the moratorium because it fears that the government will seek to pay for the cost blow-out by trying to make savings on an existing funding agreement.

That agreement pays pharmacists a fixed price for certain generic drugs no matter what the actual cost, and funds pharmacy-provided community services.

''Given the size of the over expenditure, it is simply not possible to maintain the [Home Medicines Review] program, as it is currently operating, without adversely impacting the ability of community pharmacy to deliver on these wider … programs and services,'' the national president of the guild, Kos Sclavos, wrote in a letter to the health minister last week.

He said the increase in reviews was linked to aggressive business practices of some medical and pharmaceutical businesses.

Fairfax Media understands that a large number of the reviews are being conducted in medical clinics, where pharmacists would not necessarily be able to view patient medications, and some practices are doing extremely high numbers of reviews.

The communications director for the guild, Greg Turnbull, said the reviews were ''incredibly important'', but some businesses were turning them into a gold mine.

He said the groups that had criticised the guild's stand were ''interested observers'' who would not have a role in dealing with the cost blow-out.

''They are exhibiting all care and no responsibility,'' he said.

A spokesman for Ms Plibersek said the medicines review program was important, and the health department was in discussions with the guild over its concerns.

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