Waiving the prescription copayment fee

Pharmacist Tim Walker (Ngāti Manu, Ngāpuhi) talks about how waiving the $5 copayment on prescriptions may help remove barriers to health.

Waiving the prescription copayment fee
Doctor and Pharmacist from: Brunschwig, Hieronymus: Medicinarius Das buch der Gesuntheit Liber de arte distillandi Simplicia et Composita. Das nüv buch d[er] rechte[n] kunst zu distilliere[n]. Ouch vo[n] Marsilio ficino vn[d] anderer hochberöpmter Artzte natürliche vn[d] gute künst zu behalte[n] den gesunde[n] leib vnd zuuertryben die kranckheit mit erlengeru[n]g des lebens [Straßburg] 1505 [VD16 B 8718].

“$5 might not seem like much but if you’ve just come out of hospital with five items on a prescription it adds up. We’ve had people come into the pharmacy that have to choose between pain relief and antibiotics because they can’t afford it.”

It was much more common than people think, and there had been a noticeable increase in frequency for people who could not afford their whole prescription in the pharmacy collective Tim works for in Northland.

“Some people don’t have $40. They don’t have $20, especially some of the elderly who are often looking after their grandkids… [and] as you get older, your health breaks down. It doesn’t break up. You get put on more medicines.”
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Pharmacist Tim Walker. Photograph used with permission.

Tim says that it was hard to charge people that he can see are struggling, knowing that a many of his customers are people who live frugal lives, who have normal life expenses and they just couldn’t afford the cost of prescriptions on top of it. As the cost-of-living crisis gets worse and prices of everyday items continue to increase it is more important than ever to remove barriers to equitable healthcare.

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Kerikeri Unichem Pharmacy, one of the pharmacies in the cluster Tim works for.

There are large pharmacy chains with no-charge prescriptions already, but those pharmacies are not equally available to all. For the small communities of Northland that Tim’s pharmacy collective services, the closest is in Whangārei. To those living in Kaitaia, it would have meant a five-hour round trip to access no-charge prescriptions.

As it stood, the $5 prescription fee did not go to the pharmacies but rather the government. Tim sees the government waiving the copayment fee as an equaliser. A way to allow access for people who need prescribed treatment to have the access to health that those who can afford to pay the $5 already have. He also views it as an equaliser for small pharmacies who have lost customers to the large pharmacy chains. It levels the playing field for community pharmacies where providing personalised healthcare is part of their core business. With no-charge prescriptions, the reason they left their community pharmacy is now moot, so Tim hopes that people will return to their local pharmacies and continue to support them.

The waiver of the $5 copayment fee came into effect 1 July 2023 and is already having a noticeable effect on the communities of Northland. A note was left recently with a pharmacist and reads,

“Hi V., I spent the normal $20 on a gift of appreciation for all the help over the years and for being such an asset to our community. A.S.”