Ireland’s pharmacy crisis is set to worsen and there are concerns for patients’ safety, as the Health Service Executive’s (HSE) contingency plans are proving inadequate, pharmacists have warned.

Over the weekend, hundreds of pharmacies throughout Ireland stopped dispensing medicines under the country’s Community Drugs Schemes in protest at the announcement by Mary Harney, the Minister for Health and Children, that payments to them under the Schemes are to be cut by 34%. John Corr, chairman of the contractors committee of the Irish Pharmacy Union (IPU), said yesterday that, already, widespread delays and supply problems have been identified all over the country.

“Pharmacies which are continuing to dispense are coming under unsustainable pressure. Prescriptions are taking eight hours to fill, people are being told to come back tomorrow; the HSE’s own emergency pharmacies do not have a lot of common medicines in stock. Another aspect we are concerned about is the fact that the emergency dispensaries are refusing to fill prescriptions for patients from certain areas,” said Mr Corr.

On Monday, which was the first “normal” day of service since many pharmacists terminated their dispensing contracts for the Schemes, it became clear that the HSE’s contingency plans have been “totally inadequate,” said IPU president Liz Hoctor, who added that Union members have raised serious concern about the safety of the HSE’s ten temporary dispensaries set up around the country.

“One pharmacist in Kerry who checked the prescriptions dispensed to 11 of his patients by the HSE dispensary said eight of them had been filled incorrectly,” while “another pharmacist in Limerick was refused permission to collect medicines on behalf of his patients,” she added. Moreover, the IPU says it has learned that “it is now HSE policy nationally to ban pharmacists from collecting medicines on behalf of their patients.”

The Union also accuses the HSE of adopting “bully boy tactics” by advising wholesalers not to supply high-tech drugs to pharmacists who have withdrawn from the community drug schemes, pointing out that this action “places at risk an extremely vulnerable group of patients.”

The HSE has hit back, accusing the IPU of scaremongering and pointing out that the Union has no access to the Executive’s records of the number of pharmacies who have terminated their contracts and therefore has no accurate picture of the situation, other than anecdotal information and hearsay.

“The IPU is deliberately using inaccurate information to create concern and worry in the minds of patients and clients” and this “reflects very badly on the profession,” said Laverne McGuinness, the HSE’s national director of primary, continuing and community care.

The Executive has written to the pharmacy regulator, the Pharmaceutical Society of Ireland to “draw its attention to the actions of some pharmacies in recent days, which I believe warrants investigation as it represents a serious lapse in professional standards,” she added.

Calls by patient groups for a mediator to be appointed to end the dispute are supported by an editorial in The Irish Times this morning, which states that: “with a clear danger to patient safety, it is past time for Minister for Health Mary Harney to request the urgent involvement of an independent mediator.”

The newspaper also calls on the Pharmaceutical Society of Ireland, to remind all pharmacists of their ethical responsibilities to patients, and for the HSE to respond to IPU offers to achieve the desired savings in a different way.