Norman Lamb, the Liberal Democrat MP for North Norfolk, has condemned the Government's announcement that funding for community pharmacy will be slashed by more than 7% over the next two years.
Pharmacies are the lifeblood of local communities, providing advice, support and treatment to 1.6 million people every day. In September, the Department of Health paused its plans to reduce funding for these services, after pharmacists and local residents warned that reduced access to pharmacies for those who rely on them will put more pressure on overstretched GP surgeries and hospitals.
The Government re-opened negotiations with the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee (PSNC) and other stakeholders in light of these protests - but today confirmed, in a statement to Parliament, that pharmacies will lose 4% of their funding in 2016/17 and a further 3.4% in 2017/18.
The Health Minister also announced changes to the funding system, so that payments to pharmacies will be more closely linked to the services they provide. However, he confirmed that the annual pharmacy budget will be reduced from £2.8bn to less than £2.6bn over the next two years, and critics have suggested that these cuts could lead to 3,000 pharmacies being closed across the country as a result.
Challenging the Government's cost-cutting agenda in the House of Commons, Norman Lamb said:
"There is no escaping the fact that this amounts to a significant cut in prevention services, which is what always happens when the finances of the NHS are under pressure. I absolutely accept the need for reform of the financial incentives involved, to ensure that we get the best outcomes from the money being spent, but surely we should be investing more in prevention in order to ensure that the NHS is sustainable."
In response, Health Minister David Mowat offered a vague suggestion of additional funding for prevention services - despite the heavy cuts to public health budgets previously announced by the Government. He said:
"The quality system that I have mentioned is about potentially investing more in prevention and linking the best pharmacies—the high quality pharmacies—more closely to local authorities, public health schemes and all that goes with that. I make the point again that there is a requirement for efficiency savings, but we do not believe that they will affect access overall. We do not believe that this will affect the public’s ability to use pharmacies as they do now. This will be part of modernising and digitising the service and providing resources for other parts of the NHS that need them very much.
Commenting afterwards, Norman Lamb rejected the idea that reducing pharmacy budgets would save money or make the health service more efficient.
“The Government’s belief that cutting funding for community pharmacies will improve efficiency in the NHS is a complete false economy", he said.
“These myopic plans will further increase pressure on GP surgeries and hospitals that are already buckling under the strain of limited resources and unprecedented demand for services. More people will be forced to take unnecessary trips to their GP and even A&E, which is completely counter to NHS England’s vision in the Five Year Forward View.
“If the government wants to ensure that health service is more efficient and focused on preventing ill health, then surely we should be investing more – not less – in pharmacies and other preventive services.
“This was the latest in a chain of fig-leaf consultations from the Conservative Government, which is more concerned about cutting costs in a desperate attempt to make ends meet than creating an NHS that meets the needs of patients.”