Ireland’s High Court yesterday extended an injunction against 35 pharmacies, preventing them from withdrawing services under the State Drug Schemes without the required 30 days’ notice.

The injunction was sought by the Health Service Executive (HSE) against pharmacies in the Hickey and Bradley Pharmacy groups, and the HSE says it is prepared to take other pharmacies to court if they continue to breach their Community Pharmacy Contractor Agreements. The injunction hearing against the 35 pharmacies will be heard in full on September 9.

Almost 500 pharmacies have now withdrawn or terminated their contracts in their dispute with the government over plans to reduce their fees for providing dispensing services under the Schemes. Patrick Burke, head of the HSE’s Primary Care Reimbursement Scheme, yesterday warned more than 1,100, or 75% of all pharmacies which continue to hold such Agreements to provide pharmacy services to people who are eligible for services under the Schemes. “To terminate its Agreement a pharmacy must provide a valid 30-day termination notice and continue to provide service during the notice period,” he said.

The Irish Pharmacy Union (IPU) has described the Executive’s decision to go to the court as “unhelpful” but Mary Harney, the Minister for Health and Children, has backed its actions and maintains that the fee reduction will stand.

“The new payment rates are now set in law. They have been in effect since 1 July. It is done. There will be no policy change, no change in the law to change the payment rates now,” she said.

The Minister added that where there are instances of the service not continuing in full by pharmacists who are in contract, the HSE must, on behalf of patients, use every possible means including enforcement through the courts, to ensure contracts are implemented in full.

“We will not allow contracts made for patients to be ignored or cherry-picked. For pharmacies in contract, there can be no charges for medical card patients or inappropriate closing of pharmacies and refusal to provide medicines under contracted services in a timely way,” she said.

Ms Harney said she is prepared to meet the IPU this week to attempt to resolve the dispute, but added that mediation, as has been called for by patient groups and others, is not possible because the legislation is being tested in the High Court in late October, in a case being brought by one pharmacy group. “It is not possible to mediate law, especially as it is to be tested in court,” and it is also impossible for the IPU to develop an agreed pricing strategy, “in conversation with anyone, mediator or Minister,” she said.

“Pricing issues, past or future, cannot be discussed, since no group of independent contractors may form a common position to set prices for services,” said Ms Harney.

The HSE also said yesterday that patients and clients whose usual pharmacy will no longer be participating in the State Drug Schemes can take their prescription to any participating pharmacy where they will be able to get their medicines. Medical card holders do not have to pay for their medication.