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Australians will be able to buy twice as many common medicines for the price of one script under a major pharmacy reform to deliver more cost of living relief in next month’s budget.

Health Minister Mark Butler will on Wednesday double the amount of medicine a person can collect with each script, from one to two months’ supply, for more than 320 products treating chronic conditions such as heart disease, cholesterol, Crohn’s disease and hypertension.

Patients will be able to receive 60-day scripts from September, with the same maximum co-payment of $30.Credit: Michele Mossop

The government says it will save Australians up to $180 a year on each common medicine listed on the scheme – including widely prescribed drugs such as atorvastatin, rosuvastatin and perindopril.

But the decision puts Labor on a collision course with the Pharmacy Guild, one of Australia’s biggest political donors, which is warning of a $3.5 billion hit to community pharmacies and worsening medicine shortages. They also warn of overdoses and medicine hoarding.

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton has joined the lobby group’s fight, appearing in an online video with his local pharmacy this week to push back against the scheme.

“Many, particularly older Australians, but families as well, really rely on the relationship with their local pharmacist. The government’s proposal at the moment is going to make it harder to do that work and have that relationship with their patients.”

The six million Australians who are prescribed the eligible medications will be able to get the 60-day scripts from September.

The change means patients will still pay the maximum co-payment of $30 but can receive two months’ supply. Until Labor lowered the co-payment to $30 in January, they were previously paying $42.50 for one month’s supply. Concessional patients will pay $7.30 per 60-day script.

However, doctors will still be free to decide if they write a two-month dispensing script or not.

The government said this would mitigate any risk to patients while rejecting the Pharmacy Guild’s claim it would lead to medicine shortages.

Butler said lower retail prices would help people’s health and finances, after 900,000 Australians delayed getting their prescriptions because of cost last year, while benefiting people in rural areas by halving the frequency of their trips to buy medicines.

But in an effort to placate pharmacy concerns, he promised that government savings from paying dispensing fees will not go to federal coffers, but instead be invested in community pharmacies – even though health is one of the Commonwealth’s five fastest-growing expenses.

The government has not yet released its costings for the scheme, but said the detail would be in the budget.

The measure also allows doctors to prescribe 12 months’ supply, which could eliminate one GP visit each year.

Doctor and consumer groups have been calling for the change ahead of the May 9 budget, based on a 2018 recommendation from the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee (PBAC) that was never adopted by the previous government.

Common medicines that will come under the scheme

  • Atorvastatin 
  • Rosuvastatin 
  • Perindopril
  • Amlodipine 
  • Candesartan

This week’s decision is based on updated advice the committee gave in December last year, which maintained the previous recommendation for 60-day dispensing rules but suggested they apply to 320 medications instead of the previous 143.

The issue has become the latest flashpoint in a longstanding turf war between the pharmacy lobby and vocal doctors’ groups, the Australian Medical Association and the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, who had urged Butler to take on a “lobbying leviathan” in the Guild.

Doctors are also challenging a growing state government push to give pharmacists more prescribing powers, with a recent AMA scare campaign telling Australians chemist-generated scripts will threaten their safety.

Butler reassured community pharmacies that the government would reinvest federal funds in their sector to ensure its “ongoing strength”.

He also said the government would continue to push back against the medical lobby groups and support expanding pharmacists’ scope of practice.

“Australian pharmacies already do much more than just dispense medicine and the government is supporting our trusted pharmacists to play an even bigger role in the healthcare of Australians,” he said.

Cut through the noise of federal politics with news, views and expert analysis from Jacqueline Maley. Subscribers can sign up to our weekly Inside Politics newsletter here.

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