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Peak Indigenous health body slams Queensland ban on First Nations health groups owning pharmacies

Joseph Guenzler -

The Queensland Aboriginal and Islander Health Council (QAIHC) has expressed disappointment over the exclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community controlled health organisations from owning pharmacies under new business ownership laws.

QAIHC Public Health Medical Director, Associate Professor Sophia Couzos, criticised new pharmacy ownership laws as anti-competitive and limiting, proven successful models of care essential for culturally appropriate health care for Queensland's Indigenous people.

"The new pharmacy ownership laws are anti-competitive, inequitable, and restrict options for proven successful models of care desperately needed to support the provision of culturally appropriate, comprehensive health care to Queensland's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples," she said.

"It is frustrating that the Queensland Government ignored strong advice from QAIHC, AMA Queensland, the RACGP, Productivity Commission and community groups to reject the laws.

"This puts the private profits of pharmacy owners ahead of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and their need to quality, culturally safe access to medicines."

New laws allow ACCHOs to operate all aspects of a collaborative health service except pharmacies.

"It's disappointing considering there could have been an exemption in the bill to permit Aboriginal health services to own pharmacies," Prof. Couzos said.

"They are run by the community, for the community.

"So extending the care provision to include the owning of a community pharmacy makes sense."

Data indicates significant disparities in medicine access between Aboriginal and non-Indigenous populations, with Aboriginal people having approximately one-third of the access despite a need for medicines that is two to three times greater.

Only pharmacists - or their close family members - can own a pharmacy under these regulations.

"Big corporate entities can exist with hundreds of outlets across Australia as multibillion dollar corporations, but an Aboriginal medical service, that is intimately connected with its community, is not permitted to own a community pharmacy," Prof. Couzos said.

"The (Queensland) government has stated that maintaining the 'community' in community pharmacy is its strong belief. But the pharmacy ownership restrictions that were passed does not do that.

"The ACCHO sector has revolutionised access to medicines for Aboriginal peoples in localities where the dispensing of medicines occurs from directly within the clinic."

Prof. Couzos advocated ACCHO-owned pharmacies prioritising holistic, culturally safe medication services over commercial interests to benefit Indigenous communities.

"When medicines are dispensed from an aboriginal medical service, we know that they work," she said.

"There's decades of data that have shown that - especially in remote locations.

"Although remote Aboriginal medicals services don't own the pharmacy, those services are permitted to have a stock of medications and dispense medications directly to the patient."

She welcomed Health Minister Shannon Fentiman's acknowledgment in her Parliamentary speech of the evidence supporting ACCHO pharmacy ownership and her government's commitment to closing the gap and improving healthcare for Indigenous people, but also highlighted concerns with the proposal for the new Queensland Pharmacy Business Ownership Council to include only one Indigenous representative for advice on this matter.

"In our view, the principles of community control require that Aboriginal community controlled health services, not the new Council, make recommendations about pharmacy ownership arrangements for their populations," the Associate Professor said.

She said QAIHC would work with the ACCHO sector to provide advice and recommendations to the Minister about appropriate amendments that should be made to the Act to truly support community ownership of medicines dispensing services to close the gap in medicines access for Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders.

National Indigenous Times contacted the Queensland Health Minister for comment.

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