The increase in funding for ‘Rural Support Programs,’ as part of the recently signed 7th Community Pharmacy Agreement, is a necessary step towards adequately supporting regional pharmacy operators.
$24.6 million (up from $21.2 million in the 6th CPA) was pledged for rural pharmacies in the first year of the new CPA, including a 10% increase to Rural Pharmacy Allowance (RMPA), which will increase incrementally in subsequent years.
Further to this additional funding, Health Minister Greg Hunt has also flagged that eligibility for the RMPA will soon be determined by the ‘Modified Monash Model’ for rural classification, replacing the current system which uses the Pharmacy Access/Remoteness Index of Australia (PhARIA) to determine how remote a pharmacy is.
It is expected that this new eligibility criteria will significantly boost the number of pharmacies that qualify for RPMA payments.
Regional pharmacies, many of which operate in communities with populations of less than 1,000 people, are an essential part of Australia’s frontline health defence.
Many rural communities have a high percentage of elderly and/or indigenous residents who can have complex health requirements. In some cases, the pharmacist is the only healthcare professional working in the area.
In these situations, the pharmacy operates as a “health hub” for the community and plays a critical role in maintaining the health and wellbeing of the local population.
The importance of rural pharmacies has been further underlined by the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. Through providing health care to remote communities, rural pharmacies have ensured that patients do not have to visit large regional centres to buy their medicines, thus reducing the risk of the virus spreading.
Although there are many wonderful benefits of owning a regional pharmacy, regional operators often face challenges that their metro counterparts do not have to contend with.
Besides limited access to script volume and supply chain issues, access to workforce is major a challenge for many rural pharmacy owners, who are often required to pay significantly above average wage rates in order to entice pharmacists to work in remote areas.
The measures outlined in the 7th CPA show a level of commitment from the government towards supporting the “bush pharmacies” of Australia. However, whether it is enough to ensure that rural pharmacies remain viable in the medium to long term remains to be seen.
It is important that both the Government and the Pharmacy Guild listen to the feedback from regional operators and groups like the Rural Pharmacy Network Australia (RPNA), in order to ensure that bush pharmacies can continue to support the health and wellbeing of remote Australians well into the future.