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Friday, 28 November 1986
Page: 3017

Senator GILES —I refer the Minister for Veterans' Affairs to an article in the Sydney Morning Herald of 26 November which reported the angry response of chemists to plans by supermarkets and department stores to take over small chemist shops. It has been reported that older members of the community such as veterans and war widows are very vulnerable to exploitation by the aggressive merchandising style of the larger stores. Would the Minister care to respond?

Senator GIETZELT —I saw the article in the Sydney Morning Herald referred to by Senator Giles. It caused me more concern, having regard to the fact that the overwhelming majority of the 700,000 beneficiaries that my Department caters for are old and in the vulnerable group in respect of any exploitation that may take place in the way in which drugs are made available to them based upon their eligibility. I think it would be conceded by most honourable senators that a relationship develops between patients and chemists under the prescription system. It would be a great pity if that were to be changed in such a way as to be detrimental to it. As I understand it, the overwhelming majority of pharmacists are in the small business category. Personal relationships do exist, particularly with those who are beneficiaries of my Department and who have a regular need for prescriptions to provide a certain range of drugs. Therefore, I have some serious reservations that that process and that relationship might be impeded by the suggestions from the Australian Retailers Association that the retail shops should have untrammelled entry into the pharmaceutical area.

I believe that the retailing of drugs is completely different from the retailing of goods. My impression is that the operation or ownership of chemist shops implies a degree of responsibility which is very freely accepted by the pharmacist as well as the patient. If pharmacists were forced out of the area and most of the prescribing and retailing of drugs came within the jurisdiction of the major retailing outlets this relationship would break down and lead to impersonal relationships. I think there would be a drop in the quality of patient care, particularly for the vulnerable sections of our community.

We have to concern ourselves with the temptation for large retailers to encourage the overutilisation of drugs. That would be inappropriate in times of economic restraint as well as in the interests of the health care of the patients. Certainly, it could be said that the sale of certain drugs, especially addictive drugs, should be supervised by a qualified pharmacist and not by sales assistants. Drugs such as narcotic based pain-killers, for example, codeine, and others, ought to be constantly supervised by a properly qualified pharmacist. If this area is to be transferred from the small business sector-I personally have a philosophical commitment to that grouping-I think it would be detrimental not only to patients in my area but also to patients generally who have regular recourse to pharmacies.

Over time there has been a capacity to build up a patient drug treatment profile. Having been the Minister for Veterans' Affairs for 3 1/2 years, I do not recall ever receiving any complaints from veterans about their relationships with the pharmaceutical industry. I would have some grave reservations should the suggestion be taken up and implemented by the appropriate authorities to change that relationship so that the retail industry would become the prescriber and supervisor of drugs, not the pharmacists.