The Health Service Executive (HSE) is to more than halve wholesale service charges paid to pharmacies from 17% to 8%, with the margin further reduced to 7% — the Europe-wide industry norm, after a year.
The HSE said it would save €100 million a year if it reduces the wholesale price of drugs paid to pharmacies.
Only two pharmacists have confirmed to the HSE that they will be withdrawing from the medical card scheme from tomorrow when the cut is introduced.
There has been concern that other pharmacists may take similar action.
The president of the Irish Pharmacy Union (IPU) Michael Guckian issued a statement last night urging members to continue dispensing medicines to patients tomorrow.
Mr Guckian said the union, which was planning an emergency meeting of pharmacists in Dublin next Wednesday, was close to reaching the point where it would have to advice its members that all normal channels of negotiations have been exhausted and that there was no prospect of finding an agreed solution.
Ms Harney, speaking in the Dáil, said the HSE had given an undertaking to provide medication for any person who could not get it from their pharmacy.
About 300 medical card holders telephoned the HSE’s helpline (1850 241850) looking for advice this week. A HSE spokesperson said none called back after being urged to check that their pharmacists would continue to supply their medication.
An independent body chaired by former IDA Ireland boss Sean Dorgan has been asked by Ms Harney to recommend a new fee to be paid to pharmacists for dispensing drugs under the medical card payments scheme. An Oireachtas committee has also heard submissions on the issue.
Ms Harney said she was satisfied that nothing would happen tomorrow that would preclude pharmacists from paying staff and meeting business overheads.
“There are approximately 1,600 pharmacies in the country and, on average, each received approximately €234,000 last year. Many caveats apply to different jurisdictions but, on average, that is €100,000 more than pharmacists in Northern Ireland received,” she said.
In the North there was a wholesale margin of 12.5% up to the first €180,000 and after that the level was 4%, the minister pointed out.
Ms Harney said there would be losers as a result of the removal of €100m but the winners would be patients who would receive cheaper medicine and taxpayers.
Fine Gael health spokes- person Dr Jim Reilly said he was not convinced that the HSE’s contingency plan would ensure patients got their medicine: “I hope we will not see a repeat of their bungling when methadone dispensing was withdrawn and some drug mis-users undergoing the treatment had their recovery put in jeopardy.”