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Local chemists call for an even playing field

Blake Benny
Stan Barnett
Stan Barnett, Owner of Linwood Village Pharmacy  Blake Benny

The rise in big-box discount pharmacy chains such as the NZ owned Bargain Chemist, and Australian owned Chemist Warehouse has rapidly changed the local market.

The promise of free prescriptions is their main method of getting customers through the door, much to the backlash of local pharmacy owners who can't afford to do so.

Linwood Village Pharmacy owner Stan Barnett said the move was an attempt to undermine the local industry and was "almost prostituting the profession of pharmacy".

The $5 pharmaceutical co-payment on subsidised medications has long been controversial. The fee, which is charged by pharmacies and then taken on the other end by the Government, is something many believe needs to be wiped.

Barnett, who has been a pharmacist since 1977, is one of the many chemist owners wanting this and said discount chains have created an uneven playing field.

He called for the Government to "step in and do something about it" and said it was a direct threat to the viability of community-owned pharmacies.

"They are using prescription charges as a loss leader... the community pharmacies that have been here for years, working hard are now struggling to maintain the services because it’s just about impossible to continue without a $5 co-payment."

Barnett believes there is a misconception around the payment, and the public is under the assumption pharmacies get to keep it.

He has put up a sign at his counter acknowledging his business can't compete with the discount chains, and has had many customers who until then were unaware how the process worked. 

"Just recently I had a bloke who saw the sign and said he didn't realise that was the situation, and then payed his prescription fee."

Since the opening of Bargain Chemist at Eastgate Shopping Centre in Linwood last year, all local pharmacies have dropped the fee in a bid to compete. One pharmacy recently closed and merged with another nearby.

In Australia, Chemist Warehouse is blocked from being able to offer free prescriptions after pressure from the Australian Pharmacy Guild; however there is no current rule in place blocking the practice in New Zealand.

Barnett believes unless something is done, the only winner will be the discount chains, who are "spreading substantially throughout the country", with the effects on locally-owned pharmacies continuing to grow also.