Rapid COVID-19 antigen tests available to concession cardholders, but pharmacists fear there may not be enough
More than 6 million Australians will have access to free rapid antigen tests from today, but pharmacists fear widespread supply shortages will mean they will struggle to keep up with demand.
- Retirees, veterans and low-income people are among those eligible for up to 10 free tests over a three-month period
- Pharmacies hire additional staff to meet growing demand for RAT
- But a top pharmaceutical group says the government’s reimbursement rate of $10 per test is too low
Earlier this month, and under sustained demands to make rapid antigen tests (RATs) free for all Australians, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that concession card holders would be able to collect the tests from their local pharmacies.
Retirees, veterans and low-income people are among those eligible for up to 10 free tests over a three-month period, with a maximum of five tests per month.
Demand for COVID-19 tests has increased over the summer and the decision by state and territory governments to allow the use of rapid tests has put incredible pressure on already limited supplies.
The situation has yet to improve, with RAT stocks selling off almost as soon as new shipments arrive.
Chris Freeman, president of the Pharmaceutical Society of Australia (PSA), said pharmacies had to hire extra staff just to deal with enquiries.
“The demand is extreme and pharmacists are being pushed to the limit with this right now.”
The national firm agreed to reimburse pharmacists $10, plus GST, for each RAT they provided to concession cardholders under the program, with an additional processing fee of $4.30 for each transaction .
With global demand for the tests outstripping supply, the PSA said a fee of $15 per test would be more appropriate.
“These tests are extremely rare at the moment, which drives up the price – so the $10 plus GST [reimbursement] is a challenge, in terms of making sure pharmacies can buy them at or below that,” Dr Freeman said.
But there is another issue that the PSA says would put more pressure on their members’ results.
“If you buy a number of these tests, you could be out of pocket for a month while you wait for those refunds to come in.”
The PSA believed that forcing pharmacies to compete in the open market for RATs made the task even more difficult.
“In the ideal world, we would have these tests supplied in pharmacies by the government, rather than the pharmacists themselves trying to source,” Dr Freeman said.
The federal government has insisted that the national cabinet will regularly review the reimbursement rate, to ensure it is tracking the price of RATs.
The office of Health Minister Greg Hunt has maintained that supply pressure will ease in the coming weeks, with some of the country’s biggest pharmaceutical companies expecting 16 million RATs to be available until at the end of January and another 33 million in February.
Over the weekend, Mr Hunt also pointed to the Commonwealth’s own orders for tens of millions of tests – despite criticism the Federal Government’s entry into the market has distorted prices.
The federal opposition argued that it was not good enough and pointed to a lack of planning on the part of the Commonwealth.
“Remarkably, Scott Morrison says it is not his job to provide tests to pharmacies in the first place,” Shadow Health Minister Mark Butler said on Sunday.
“Again, refusing to take responsibility for running your own politics and pretending this is all someone else’s job.
“Millions of Australian pensioners and pharmacies will be left behind by another failure by Scott Morrison to do his job.”
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