Chemists look set for reprieve over fees: Change in payments 'could close shops'

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Indy Politics
THE GOVERNMENT is preparing to retreat over plans to impose a new system of paying pharmacists for dispensing NHS prescriptions, after claims that they could force the closure of one in four chemist shops.

Leaders of the profession have been privately assured by Department of Health officials that they will today be ready to discuss alternatives to the scheme published last March, which provoked an outcry among the 10,000 pharmacists in England and Wales.

Pharmacists are paid pounds 1.59 for each of the first 1,700 prescriptions they dispense a month, and 80.5p thereafter, providing some protection for the smaller pharmacies. After pressure from the National Audit Office and the Treasury, the department wants to replace that with a flat-rate fee system from next year, topped up by a new professional allowance. But pharmacists would qualify for the pounds 500 monthly allowance only if they dispensed 2,000 prescriptions a month or more.

The Government is now understood to have conceded that the threshhold of 2,000 prescriptions must be lowered significantly. It is anxious to avoid a rash of politically-embarrassing closures at a time when health ministers are keen to expand the role of community pharmacists. In Scotland, which has a system similar to that being proposed for England and Wales, the threshhold for payment of the professional allowance is 1,300 prescriptions a month.

The climbdown follows a detailed survey of dispensing practices by the pharmaceutical services negotiating committee, which found that some areas could lose most of their chemist shops if the scheme went ahead.

The viability of one in four pharmacists around the country would have been undermined. But in the London borough of Kensington, for example, where 84 per cent of chemist shops dispense fewer than 2,000 prescriptions a month, the proportion would be much higher. In Kingston and Richmond and Barnet, about 55 per cent fail to meet that threshhold; in Northumberland, 47 per cent.

David Sharpe, chairman of the pharmaceutical services negotiating committee, said the Department of Health 'have come to their senses at last and I am now expecting a revised offer'.