Pharmacy Guild backs down on codeine changes, Hunt says

Health Minister Greg Hunt arrives at Canberra Airport on Monday 7 August 2017. fedpol Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
Health Minister Greg Hunt arrives at Canberra Airport on Monday 7 August 2017. fedpol Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt is standing firm on new rules banning over-the-counter codeine products, in defiance of some party room colleagues, state counterparts and the vocal pharmacy lobby.

He revealed the Pharmacy Guild, which has been lobbying heavily for exemptions so that some codeine products can be easily accessible to some patients, had "reversed its position" in its fight to water down the new regulations.

All codeine-based products, including Panadeine and Nurofen Plus, are set to become prescription-only from February next year after the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) found restricting access would reduce addiction and deadly overdoses.

"The guild has reversed its position and has accepted the up-scheduling in full," he said at the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners' (RACGP) conference in Sydney on Friday.

"So they're not the only ones that can be strong. On this, they have now come around and made it absolutely clear that they will work with us and support the up-scheduling."

It's understood the guild has been wining and dining state politicians in the past few months in a bid to convince state governments that there should be exemptions to the prescription rule.

The final implementation of the up-scheduling is a matter for each state government as to whether it adopts the decision in its own jurisdiction.

The industry is set to lose about $120 million in medicine sales because of the restrictions.

The guild has donated nearly $340,000 to both major political parties in the past two financial years, according to the Australian Electoral Commission.

When Fairfax Media tried to verify Mr Hunt's claims, a spokesman for the guild said it had never sought to reverse the TGA decision.

When asked whether a "reverse" meant it had stopped fighting for exemptions, it did not respond.

The spokesman said: "Pharmacists are working with patients to ensure a smooth transition to prescription-only for these medicines from February 1."

There have been reports in the past week that Mr Hunt had faced a rebellion from Liberal MPs who argued the impending changes were unpopular and wouldn't work.

Mr Hunt also received a joint letter from the state health ministers, including NSW's Brad Hazzard, urging him to reconsider certain elements because people may suffer great pain as they wait for a GP appointment to get a script and be left with out-of-pocket costs, and these problems would be worse in rural areas.

"All jurisdictions are committed to reducing the impact of inappropriate medication use, addiction and overdoses of all kinds, and are taking a range of actions in support of this policy goal," the letter said.

"However, some stakeholders have raised a number of concerns about the unintended consequences of the change in scheduling of codeine products."

But Mr Hunt has held his ground, announcing at the conference the Turnbull government would give $1 million to ensure doctors and consumers were informed about the scheduling change.

"I have listened carefully to calls from state health ministers, consumer and medical groups for more support and this funding announced today will ensure health professionals and consumers have the information they need," he said.

Mr Hunt reiterated that each state and territory had the choice of implementing the decision in their own jurisdictions.

The highly addictive opiate has been blamed for 100 deaths a year.

At the conference, RACGP president Dr Bastian Seidel urged the guild to clarify its position immediately and make it "crystal clear" it would stop seeking an exemption.

"We want to see an absolute commitment the only codeine being dispensed will be prescribed," he said.

"They just need to give the statement otherwise it's just semantics."

He accused the guild, the peak body for pharmacies, of being "money driven", and putting industry interests over those of people.

"The argument that sometimes it's difficult for a patient to see a GP, that's ridiculous and the data doesn't suggest that at all, even in rural areas," he said.

"We are concerned their significant political donations, particularly in the states, are buying access and we are concerned that payment for policies are nothing else but putting patients at risk. It needs to stop."

He said the state health ministers were ignoring the evidence.

"If a state health minister is undermining a decision by the TGA, he should be held accountable," he said.

"There is no need for the decision to be undermined and questioned. It's evidence driven. We need to get it done."

This story Pharmacy Guild backs down on codeine changes, Hunt says first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.