Community pharmacists have labelled the free rapid antigen test scheme as unacceptable, saying they’re out of stock and the government payments are insufficient and will be delayed by design.
Six million concession card holders will be able to ask for free rapid antigen tests (RATs) at pharmacies in most parts of Australia from next Monday.
According to the scheme, concession card holders can collect up to 10 free RATs from pharmacies over a three-month period. A maximum of five can be collected a month.
“But we have absolutely no tests in stock at the moment,” Sydney-based community pharmacist Jenny Huynh told SBS News.
“We have ordered them. They were promised to us earlier this week, but they have not arrived. The ETA is always moving and I predict we won’t have any stock on Monday,” Ms Huynh, who works at Fresh Therapeutics pharmacy in Sydney’s Broadway, said.
For every pack of two RATs the pharmacists give away to concession card holders, the federal government has agreed to pay them $22, plus an Infrastructure and Handling Fee (IHF) of $4.30.
Likewise, for every pack of five RATs the pharmacists give away to concession card holders, the government will pay them $55, plus an IHF of $4.30.
In a statement to SBS News, a Department of Health spokesperson confirmed “the government considers the payments to be sufficient”.
“The payment structure was discussed and agreed with key pharmacy stakeholders as an appropriate level of remuneration for this time-limited program,” the spokesperson said.
But many community pharmacists have said those payments are just not enough.
“What you have to understand is we have to source these tests in an overinflated market,” Catherine Bronger, pharmacist and owner of the 24-hour Chemistworks in Sydney's Wetherill Park, told SBS News.
“We’ve been offered rapid antigen tests [by suppliers] for up to $15 a test, so you’ll just lose money if you were to put them on a concession,” she said.
Making matters worse is the fact that many community pharmacists have to pay their wholesalers upfront at the time of placing an order, but they may not receive the government payments until weeks after handing out free RATs to concession card holders.
Simon Rankin runs Sandringham Amcal Pharmacy in Sandringham, Melbourne. Source: Supplied
“With our wholesalers, we would have to pay for RATs upfront, so that’s two to three weeks when you’re out of cash flow,” Ms Bronger said.
“And what we’ve been told is the government isn’t even paying us on a daily basis. They’re planning to pay us either monthly and, perhaps, weekly. So as a small business I am essentially funding the free rapid antigen tests through my cash flow, which is unacceptable,” she said.
In its statement to SBS News, the Department of Health spokesperson said: “Decisions in respect of stocking, supply and purchasing arrangements are a matter between the pharmacy and the wholesale distributor, while participation in the concessional access program is a matter for individual pharmacies.”
Simon Rankin, who runs Sandringham Amcal Pharmacy in Sandringham, Melbourne, told SBS News concession card holders started turning up at his pharmacy as soon as Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the scheme on 5 January, even though the program is not meant to kick off until 24 January.
“The abuse we have gone through over these products is incredible. We were getting 100 calls an hour. It never stopped,” Mr Rankin said, adding he’s concerned the start of the program in the absence of sufficient RAT stock will make the problem worse.
The Department of Health confirmed that “the program will commence on Monday 24 January 2022” despite the shortages.