Temporary measures improve access to medicines during COVID-19 pandemic

Michael Weaver 6 April 2020
A pharmacist talks to a customer at a chemist.

Pharmacists will have greater flexibility to provide people with medicines that are deemed urgent as part of a range of measure approved by the Federal Government on 31 March. Photo: File.

Temporary measures that provide greater access to prescription medicines have been approved by the Federal Government to reduce the burden on GPs and support social distancing and self-isolation as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds.

New temporary measures approved on 31 March include a home delivery service and restrictions on the number of medicines that can be purchased to prevent unnecessary medicine stockpiling.

Other measures include:

  • Continued dispensing arrangements for the ongoing supply PBS subsidised medicines without a prescription will be extended to 30 June 2020.
  • A home delivery service for PBS and Repatriation Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (RPBS) medicines is now in place.
  • Ongoing work with pharmacists, GPs and the States and Territories to allow medicine substitution by the pharmacist in the event of a shortage.

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said the changes to the regulation of medicines ensured Australians could continue to access the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) medicines they need during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are also closely monitoring the impact of the pandemic on the supply of medicines, especially those manufactured overseas, so we can take early action to address any potential supply interruptions.

“These temporary changes will ensure Australians can access the medicines they need throughout the coronavirus outbreak,” Mr Hunt said.

The temporary ‘continued dispensing’ arrangements allow people to obtain their usual medicines at PBS prices, even if they cannot get a new prescription from their doctor.

Under strict conditions, pharmacists will be able to give patients up to one month’s supply of their usual medicine without a script at the usual PBS consumer co-payment.

The patient must previously have been prescribed the medicine and the pharmacist must be satisfied it is urgently needed.

These measures were originally put in place in January in response to the widespread bushfires and were due to end on 31 March but have now been extended following consultation with doctors and the community pharmacy sector.

Mr Hunt said a new Home Medicines Service has been established to provide home delivery of PBS and Repatriation Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme medicines for vulnerable people and people in isolation.

“This will complement the Government’s investments in telehealth, which allow people to see their doctor remotely, and if necessary obtain a script remotely. Vulnerable people will also be able to have their scripts filled remotely and delivered to their home,” he said.

The Government is also fast-tracking the roll-out of electronic prescribing and dispensing through medical and dispensing software to make this even easier.

Further changes will allow community pharmacists to substitute dose strengths or forms of medicines without prior approval from the prescribing doctor if a medicine is unavailable at the time of dispensing.

Mr Hunt said these changes will relieve pressure on busy doctors and allow patients to receive their medicines from their pharmacist without delay.

“The changes will allow, for example, a pharmacist to dispense different strengths of a product (such as two 20 mg tablets in place of a 40 mg tablet), or a different dose form of the same medicine (such as a capsule instead of a tablet),” he said.

The changes will be implemented through the Scheduling Policy Framework and Poisons Standard, with implementation by States and Territories and the Australian Government through the Therapeutic Goods Association.

Mr Hunt said the Australian Government will continue to consult on the implementation and the potential expansion of these substitution measures.

New measures were also introduced on 19 March to prevent people from stockpiling certain medicines, such as Ventolin inhalers.

Pharmacists are required to limit dispensing and sales of certain prescription and over-the-counter medicines to a one-month supply for prescription medicines and to a maximum of one unit per purchase of certain over-the-counter non-prescription medicines

Pharmaceutical wholesalers are also required to manage the supply of medicines to community pharmacies where there are significant stock shortages to ensure equitable distribution of medicines to all Australians.


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