Islanders campaign against Benbecula pharmacy plan

Campaigners claim that a plan to install a pharmacy on Benbecula would lead to job losses. Picture: Jon Savage
Campaigners claim that a plan to install a pharmacy on Benbecula would lead to job losses. Picture: Jon Savage
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A campaign is underway in the Western Isles to halt plans for the first pharmacy in Benbecula which doctors claim will cost GP jobs and leave patients travelling up to 60 miles to collect prescriptions.

Two medical practices are urging the public to oppose an application for a dispensing pharmacy to be allowed to operate in Balivanich, covering Benbecula and North Uist.

If the proposal is approved, it would result in both Lochmaddy and Benbecula medical practices losing their dispensing contracts – a move which they claim would result in job losses.

The surgeries currently prescribe and dispense medication at the moment and get funding to do so, but this service would end if a chemists opened.

Local Pharmacies Limited said it had identified public support for a chemists and has made an application to NHS Western Isles to run an operation in Balinvanich.

A 60-day consultation period will now be carried out.

A protest campaign is being led by North Uist and Benbecula medical practices, and is supported by local MSP Alasdair Allan and Uist councillor Uisdean Robertson.

Helen Maclean, practice manager at the Lochmaddy-based practice, said: “The row is really about how far patients will have to go to collect their prescriptions.

“At the moment they get seen by a doctor, get a prescription and collect it on the way out.

“If this pharmacy gets the go ahead they will have to travel to the pharmacy to get their medication.

“If you have patients on Bernerey, say, they will have to cross causeways and make a 60-mile round trip to get their prescription. It is totally out of order.”

She added: “If we lost the contract we would also have to lose a full-time equivalent doctor.”

Dr Gerry Wheeler, also of the Lochmaddy practice, added: “GPs with dispensing practices don’t earn more. The money is used to subsidise medical care.

“Basically – if the pharmacy opens it would close our dispensary. The inconvenience that this would create for patients getting prescriptions would be important – but this would be just one in a long line of issues, as it would also inevitably lead to a drastic reduction in the services that the practice will be able to provide.

“North Uist medical practice isn’t really viable without dispensary rights. We only have 1400 patients – the money that such a small group attracts from the health board is not enough to fund the kind of practice we have at the moment.

“If the practice is able to survive it will only be able to do so if it contracts quite severely. At the very least one doctor would be made redundant and possibly two reception / dispensing staff will have to go.

And Dr Kate Dawson, of Benbecula Medical Practice, has launched an online campaign to stop the pharmacy.

She claimed if GP surgeries were no longer required to handle prescriptions, it would lead to the loss of dispensing staff and a doctor at her surgery.

She added that this in turn would have an impact on out-of-hours services, saying: “Having a local chemist is usually a good thing – but when you live in a very remote location like ours you have to take the down sides as well as the benefits.

“In other communities where this has happened doctors surgeries have closed completely, in others services have been drastically reduced.

“Unfortunately, if a pharmacy opens, the local doctors surgeries aren’t allowed to compete with them, we are forced to close our dispensary – it’s the law.”

North Uist Councillor Uisdean Robertson said: “There are major disadvantages in going for a pharmacy, the worst being the distance patients have to travel to get medication, some up to 60 miles.

“About 27% of the population of North Uist are of pension age, and many can’t drive or rely on public transport. Some would be forced to take taxis.”

Local MSP Alasdair Allan said: “The main concern is the impact on the viability of practices and the healthcare in these areas.”

Jamil Khalil of Local Pharmacies was not returning calls, but has previously said: “I feel there is a need for a dispensing pharmacy in the community, and that the community doesn’t know what a pharmacy can offer.

“There has been lots of scaremongering, but the pharmacy offers benefits to the doctors and to the community as a whole.

“There has never been a case where GPs have been affected by a pharmacy opening in a rural community, the GP contract is not affected, only the pharmacy contract is affected.”

A spokeswoman for NHS Western Isles confirmed that the application had been received and was being checked.

She said: “Having now received a formal application, the Board will carry out its own public consultation with the local communities over a period of 60 days.

“We will ensure that our consultation is widely advertised to enable as many people as possible to comment on the proposals.”


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