Australian pharmacies take a loss under government scheme for concession card holders as RAT prices skyrocket

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Richard Milnes/REX/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Richard Milnes/REX/Shutterstock

Subsidy was set before global demand increased in December and some chemists have struggled to afford tests under scheme, pharmacy guild says

Pharmacies are losing up to $7.50 on each rapid antigen test under the federal government’s concession card-holder scheme due to a shortage of stock.

Under the program 6.6m concession card holders in Australia can access up to 10 free RATs over a three month period, but the Pharmacy Guild of Australia has told the Guardian the scheme leads to a loss for individual chemists.

The shortage of tests across the country has driven up wholesale prices. The tests currently cost the pharmacies up to $17.50 each but the government is providing only a $10 reimbursement, the guild said.

Related: ‘Covid has spread like wildfire’: 703 aged care homes across Australia battle fresh outbreaks

Prof Trent Twomey, the national president of the Pharmacy Guild of Australia, said while wholesale prices have increased, there hasn’t been a subsequent adjustment to the reimbursement.

“The reimbursed price set by the government has clearly been calculated on the wholesale cost of the tests around early December. The wholesale prices have gone up because of the demand, and distributors are chartering jets to bring the product in, and then employing staff at weekends and on overtime to process orders which are dispatched by express courier services.

“They are also competing with overseas markets for the product,” he said. “All of these factors come at a cost which is passed along in wholesale prices to pharmacists.”

Twomey said some pharmacies have struggled to afford tests under the concession scheme.

“If the government wants to improve accessibility they can improve the timeframe they reimburse pharmacies. At the moment the government won’t be making the first payments until the end of February.”

“Many small pharmacies can’t afford to wait this long.”

The guild has established a Rapid Antigen Test finder for concession card holders which lists local pharmacies that have tests in stock. The site initially struggled under the demand, but Twomey said it has since stabilised and is available to use.

Ian Yates, the chief executive of the charity Council on the Ageing Australia (COTA Australia), said that pensioners had found access to the tests a “mixed bag”.

“What we are seeing is that some people have been able to obtain the RATs without difficulty and others are having trouble. It varies from area to area.

“We understand both from the government and the pharmacy guild that some areas have reasonable supplies and others are struggling and waiting on supplies,” he said.

“We do have an overall concern that there’s not enough RATs for aged care, and at-home care, and the concession scheme, but we know they’re coming.”

The federal government has previously indicated that testing supplies will improve in the coming weeks, with 16m tests expected to arrive at pharmacies before the end of January.

But Dr Cassandra Goldie, the CEO of the Australian Council of Social Service, said she was “deeply concerned” at the current state of stock.

“People are telling us that getting RATs continues to be a massive problem – free or paid,” she said.

“The biggest problem is that chemists are out of stock. We haven’t heard directly from anyone who was able to get a free rapid antigen testing kit; mostly people’s experience is that the chemists near them have signs out saying they are sold out.

Related: Aged care provider says it has ‘no faith’ in federal promise of rapid antigen tests

“This is consistent with what pharmacies are reporting – and only 900 out of 6,000 pharmacies signed up to the program.”

Goldie says the shortage of tests and the lack of access has resulted in many concession card holders – some of the most vulnerable people in the country – having to remain isolated at home.

“People on $45/day can’t waste money travelling around looking farther afield for chemists. They can’t afford to run a car or go through their precious petrol.

“People tell us they are feeling forgotten and fed up. The lack of accessible and free RATs is forcing people to stay home and stay isolated.”

The tests provide a means for vulnerable communities to ensure their safety, as well as those of their families and carers, allowing people to protect their incomes.

Acoss is calling on the government to establish a Covid Rapid Response Group that would include unions, businesses and public health experts to help coordinate the pandemic response.

“The federal government must acknowledge that supply is an ongoing problem and ensure there are enough free RATs readily available for people with concession cards so that people can easily access tests,” Goldie said.

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