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NHS: Rural General Practitioner Dispensing

Volume 755: debated on Tuesday 8 July 2014

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will hold talks with NHS England about steps that could be taken to slow down the closure of rural dispensing general practitioner practices, against the background of the operation of the one-mile rule covering new free-standing pharmacies, and the phased withdrawal of the minimum practice income guarantee.

I and my ministerial colleagues are in regular contact with NHS England. We are not aware of significant closures of rural dispensing practices. The “one-mile rule” is a long-established precept under NHS pharmaceutical services legislation, which determines whether patients in designated rural areas remain eligible to receive dispensing services from their GP. We have no plans to review or amend that precept. NHS England is asking practices that believe they may be adversely affected by the phased withdrawal of the minimum practice income guarantee scheme to contact their local area team to discuss their concerns.

I thank the Minister for that reply, but the British Medical Association, at its conference last week, produced a statement citing NHS England as expecting scores of closures of such dispensing practices. I have a supplementary question and a proposal, but I think that the House may find it useful if I give the background.

Given the loss of income from the double whammy of what is called the one-mile rule and the phased withdrawal of the minimum practice income guarantee, many practices will go below the red line of viability. Will the Minister therefore hold talks with NHS England and suggest that, when there is such a double whammy, the one-mile radius rule could be applied to new patients but not to existing patients—so numbers would be reduced through mortality over the years?

My Lords, the phasing out of the minimum practice income guarantee is being gradually implemented over seven years to give adequate time for GP practices to adjust. In fact, most practices stand to gain under that arrangement. I would encourage any practice to take the matter up with the local area team at NHS England if it has particular concerns. The provisions governing whether a doctor can continue to provide dispensing services to eligible patients when a new pharmacy opens nearby, which is a separate issue, have been in place for a long time and are subject to a long-standing agreement. If an application for a new NHS pharmacy is made to NHS England that would affect, for example, the noble Lord’s dispensing practice, that practice is able to make its views known. There is an appeals process as well. If a new pharmacy were approved that does affect the practice’s dispensing patients, it is open to NHS England to phase in gradually the shift from using the practice’s dispensary to a pharmacy for those patients affected.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that this agreement arose from the 1911 Act—well over 100 years ago—and that there is extreme unrest among patients who are forced to go to a pharmacy when they have been used to using a dispensing doctor? Does the Minister intend to continue subsidising what are known as essential small pharmacies and not give patients a choice?

My Lords, I do not think that it is a question of opposing choice against the rules that we have in place. The rules are there as a result of very long-standing agreements between the medical profession and the pharmacists. I do not think that there is an appetite on either side to open those rules up for renegotiation. A balance has to be struck somewhere and the professions are content with the balance that has been struck.

My Lords, given that half of patients who use dispensing GP services include at least one person over 65 and that one in six is a disabled person, can the Minister tell us whether the one-mile rule makes sense in very rural areas, where public transport may be very sketchy, especially as the one-mile rule is as the crow flies, not via the roads?

My noble friend makes a good point. That is why the rules contain an exception for those who find it difficult to travel and who may therefore wish to have medicines dispensed from their own dispensing GP practice. Those rules do apply to disabled people and to those whom my noble friend describes.

My Lords, does the Minister not regard it as somewhat ironic that yesterday we had the Government trumpeting their Deregulation Bill but today he defends what essentially is an uneasy truce between the BMA and the pharmaceutical interest, in which often the public are the losers? Is it not time for that to be reviewed again?

I simply ask the noble Lord why his Government introduced those rules when they were reviewed only a few years ago, before the current Administration came to office.

My Lords, I am grateful for the assurances that the Minister has given so far in respect of possible closures as a result of the change in the financial arrangements and also, of course, of developments in towns, which inevitably result in the creation of new general practices and new associated pharmacies. On the question of rural practices where a proportion of patients are very old indeed, I ask the Minister to reiterate that great care will be taken that they will not be disadvantaged in any way by the future arrangements.

Yes¸ my Lords. As I have described, there is a provision in the rules to take account of elderly and infirm people who find it difficult to travel and who may therefore still wish to have their medicines dispensed by their own dispensing GP rather than be forced to travel a longer distance.