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Special authority for NSW residents affected by bushfires to access essential medicines without a prescription

Alex Rea 11 January 2020
Penny Drake and Tash Armstrong

Pharmacy Assistants Penny Drake and Tash Armstrong at Capital Chemist Braidwood. Photo: Bente Hart.

NSW residents affected by the bushfire crisis will now be able to access a standard PBS or manufacturer’s pack quantity of their prescription-only medicines (Schedule 4) without a prescription following the issuing of a special authority by the NSW Chief Health Officer.

Under the special authority announced on Thursday night (9 January), NSW pharmacists will be able to supply people affected by the bushfires with standard PBS quantities and standard pack sizes of non-PBS medicines without a prescription when a pharmacist is satisfied there is an immediate therapeutic need and obtaining a prescription is impractical. In most cases, this represents a month’s supply of that medicine.

The move has been welcomed by the Pharmaceutical Society of Australia (PSA), and pharmacists like Natasha Jovanoska from Capital Chemist Braidwood.

“We are incredibly grateful for the opportunity that we have been provided to be able to provide a full box of medication to people in need. During normal circumstances, we would only be able to provide three days’ worth of emergency medication. In circumstances like the one we currently find ourselves in, three days is not enough and adds another pressure onto people who are already going through hardship,” Ms Jovanoska said.

“It is, however, important to note that these emergency supplies of medication are not covered by the PBS so will be processed privately [non-PBS scripts]. We hope that through this special authority we are able to help those in and around our community,” she added.

Prior to this special authority being issued, pharmacists were unable to supply more than three days’ supply of a prescription-only medicine without a prescription in an emergency.

In welcoming the announcement, the PSA NSW Branch President Peter Carroll noted that the current bushfires across NSW have resulted in unprecedented demand on pharmacists working in multiple settings, especially in community pharmacies.

“We have heard many stories and first-hand examples of pharmacists going above and beyond in their support of their communities. But up until now, the inability to supply more than three-days’ supply of medicines to people has been an unacceptable barrier to accessing and providing care to people in these disaster-affected zones.

“This announcement means that people separated from their prescription medicines or prescriptions will be able to access their regular medicines needed for managing chronic health conditions, such as blood pressure, depression, diabetes, asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).”

Similar to other emergency supply provisions, Schedule 4 Appendix D medicines (such as benzodiazepines) and Controlled Drugs (Schedule 8 medications such as opioid pain medicines) cannot be supplied under this provision unless authorised by a medical practitioner by telephone, email or facsimile.

“We thank the NSW Ministry of Health for responding to this urgent need and issuing this special authority which is vital to ensure NSW residents affected by bushfires can continue access to medicines vital for their health,” Professor Carroll said.

“We understand this is the first time such a special authority has been issued in Australia. Unfortunately, emergencies and disasters are regular events in NSW. We are keen to work with the NSW Government after this crisis subsides to review how this provision could become engrained in regulation to ensure people are able to access medicines when the next emergency strikes.”

Malua Bay Pharmacist Raj Gupta has kept his pharmacy doors open since the fires began. “Patients I have known for years have come into my pharmacy having lost all their medications in the fires,” Mr Gupta said.

“When you have lost your home, there is no power or telephone and it might be weeks before you can get in to see a doctor, to turn them away with just a few days of life-saving medicines to tide them over because of some bureaucratic rule – it just needs to be fixed.”

PSA National President Associate Professor Chris Freeman congratulated the NSW Ministry of Health on this pragmatic and important solution in improving access to medicines in disaster situations.

“The NSW Government has been the first to listen to calls from the national peak body representing pharmacists. The NSW Government has shown leadership, compassion and a willingness to ensure NSW residents affected by these unprecedented fires can have safe access to medicines in an emergency,” Associate Professor Freeman said.

“The PSA will continue to advocate on behalf of Australians affected by the bushfires and their amazing and courageous pharmacists who care for them, to have nationally consistent emergency supply rules for medicines without having to foot the bill,” he said.

The special provision takes effect immediately and expires on 31 March 2020. PSA will distribute guidance to NSW pharmacists in addition to information published on the NSW Health website.

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