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Stick 'em up: Why flu jabs could needle Queenslanders for their cash

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Free flu shots for Queenslanders could be coming at a cost to government integrity, with the scheme poised to swell the coffers of one of the country’s biggest political donors while potentially undermining public health measures.

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Since launching the trouble-plagued influenza A vaccination program last month, a highly criticised snap decision that blindsided doctors and other health professionals, the Palaszczuk Government has relied on the Pharmacy Guild Corporate Vaccination Program to underpin the jab rollout.

Part of that program includes the Find a Pharmacy website, where visitors register their name and email address to find their closest pharmacy to book an appointment.

The website’s privacy collection notice says information entered will be used by the Pharmacy Guild for sales and marketing purposes.

The Pharmacy Guild is a national employers organisation, representing the owners of pharmacies, some of which are large chains such as Priceline and Terry White Chemists.

The Find a Pharmacy website, promoted by Health Minister Yvette D’Ath on her Facebook page, only directs visitors to pharmacies that are Guild members, estimated to be just over a third of the pharmacies in Queensland.

A link provided on Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk’s media release yesterday, announcing 460,000 Queenslanders had received the jab, while urging more to “take advantage” of the program before June 30, directs to a Queensland Government information webpage, which in turn then directs to a Guild Corporate Bookings page for people who wish to book with a pharmacy to confirm their vaccination appointment.

This Guild page is linked to a website called www.qldfreevax.com.au which is open to all community pharmacies, and was created in 2017 when the Queensland Government procured pharmacy vaccination services under a standing offer arrangement.

A Pharmacy Guild Queensland branch spokesperson said that as of Monday, some 113,840 Queenslanders had accessed their vaccinations through community pharmacies with a total of 148,395 bookings lodged.

People who want to book their vaccination with a GP are directed from the Queensland Government webpage to the independent federal government designed Health Direct, which includes all vaccination providers, including pharmacies, regardless of their affiliation with the Guild.

It is not the first time ministers have preferred to promote the Find a Pharmacy website ahead of the taxpayer-funded platform.

It was regularly promoted by governments throughout the Covid-19 vaccine rollout, including by the former Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt, who included it on the federal government health and Covid-19 websites.

A screenshot showing Yvette D’Ath promoting the Find a Pharmacy website on Facebook.

In addition to the website promotion, InQueensland has learned that pharmacies participating in the vaccination scheme are being forced to use a Pharmacy Guild owned database called GuildCare, which collects patient information and automatically submits vaccination records to the Australian Immunisation Register.

Pharmacists who have spoken to InQueensland on background for fear of retribution, say the Queensland Government has “essentially mandated” the use of GuildCare by not allowing pharmacies to claim payments for the free influenza vaccine initiative if they use other software platforms

“It’s a joke,” one pharmacist said. “If we want to access the government reimbursement, we have to use the GuildCare software.”

Another pharmacist described the GuildCare platform as “clunky” and the onboarding process as “horrendous”.

They said the requirement to use GuildCare had resulted in “considerable and unnecessary workload” for pharmacies due to the data entry required.

They said the system had turned off many pharmacists from participating in the program and may have been responsible for thousands of influenza vaccine doses not administered during the first week of the scheme when poorly-planned logistics caused chaos for doctors and medical administrators caught flat-footed by the unexpected announcement.

The Pharmacy Guild spokesperson said the GuildCare system had been instrumental in ensuring the State Government had a single source of truth for the payment of funds to community pharmacies for vaccination services and could achieve “first mover advantage over other states”.

Pharmacists have another database platform they can use called MedAdvisor, designed and owned by a Melbourne based company listed on the ASX.

According to the Pharmaceutical Society of Australia (PSA), which represents 31,000 individual pharmacists nationally, MedAdvisor records more than 78 per cent of influenza vaccines, while more than 64 per cent of pharmacies use MedAdvisor as their preferred immunisation software.

A PSA spokesperson said the arrangement regarding the GuildCare software was not ideal and had originally been put in place as a short-term solution, with a “very short lead time”.

They said all other states offering free influenza vaccines through community pharmacy networks, had implemented “platform agnostic recording mechanisms” rather than the Queensland approach of adhering to one, privately-owned product.

“Providing a platform agnostic solution will ease the workload burden on pharmacists and will encourage more pharmacies to participate in the program, further improving vaccine accessibility for Queenslanders,” they said.

Angry pharmacists say that in order to claim the influenza vaccine rebate from the Queensland Government, they may have to maintain two databases and incur extra cost as the GuildCare program requires an annual subscription fee.

They are further incensed when Palaszczuk and D’Ath direct Queenslanders to a website they say will effectively enlarge the Pharmacy Guild’s customer base while enriching at least three different revenue streams for an already powerful lobby group: the taxpayer-funded rebate, the software subscription and the ongoing marketing of Pharmacy Guild member products and services informed by mining data off the Find a Pharmacy website.

InQueensland asked the minister to clarify the nature of the relationship between the Queensland Government, her office and the Pharmacy Guild.

D’Ath said she made “no apology for taking this proactive health measure” which had allowed Queensland to lead the nation on flu vaccinations.

D’Ath said she had urged Queenslanders to see their GP or pharmacist to get vaccinated, and had enjoyed the support of both the Pharmacy Guild and the Australian Medical Association Queensland (AMAQ) at the announcement of the program’s launch in May.

“We’ll continue to work with all stakeholders to promote vaccination, which we know helps to keep Queenslanders safe,” D’Ath said in a prepared statement.

It is not the first time similar questions probing the nature of the relationship between the Queensland Government and the Pharmacy Guild have been asked.

An article by medical trade publication AusDoc published in March identified the Pharmacy Guild as the nation’s sixth biggest political donor, behind the ANZ bank, Australian Hotels Association and Wesfarmers.

The article, (which can be read in full here with no paywall), follows the money trail and lobbyist activity in relation to recent Queensland health related decisions.

Eighty-one meetings, 24 of them in D’Ath’s office, took place with Pharmacy Guild lobbyists between August 2020 and February this year, citing records from the Queensland Integrity Commissioner.

Activity increased markedly from February this year, ahead of the influenza vaccine announcement and amid negative coverage of a women’s health program in North Queensland, which currently has the Pharmacy Guild and the AMAQ in conflict.

The Pharmacy Guild spokesperson said their organisation “strives to have professional working relationships across the various levels of government regardless of political affiliation”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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