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Rochester pharmacist cut off from job due to border restrictions

By Ivy Jensen

THE health of vulnerable and elderly patients is at risk if an anomaly denying border pharmacists to travel to their workplaces isn't changed.

Moama-based pharmacist Ingrid Lewis works at Echuca’s Coburn and Reid Pharmacy, as well as one day a week at Terry White Chemmart in Rochester.

However, a NSW border order — which does not classify community pharmacies as critical — means Mrs Lewis is not allowed to travel to Rochester.

“My colleagues in Rochester are having to increase their workloads to meet my absence,” she said.

“If a colleague was to become unavailable for work, this would further strain the situation. The possibility of the pharmacy being unable to operate due to the unavailability of the remaining few pharmacists needs also to be considered.

“This would have enormous consequences for the aged care facilities and the wider community.”

Terry White Chemmart Rochester pharmacist Brett Phillips said losing a worker in these unprecedented times put extra strain on the workers.

“We have a pool of only four pharmacists and we're already doing extra jobs and duties as it is,” he said.

“I just wish there was more consideration for smaller communities and essential workers within them.”

Mrs Lewis said the Rochester pharmacy was the only one supplying the local community with critical access to medications.

“It also supplies the local aged care facilities with both medication and ongoing access to pharmacist expertise,” she said.

As an accredited consultant pharmacist, Mrs Lewis assists prescribers, aged care nurses and support staff on medication use, especially in the elderly.

“At a time that aged care is under intense pressure and the rural workforce is in demand, I do not feel it is appropriate for NSW Health to exclude pharmacists and deny the aged care facilities and the community with critical expertise,” she said.

Mrs Lewis said the oversight in not including pharmacists and pharmacy staff as a critical service held them in utter contempt.

“Pharmacies and pharmacists offer an absolutely essential service to the community,” she said.

“We are the only community-based avenue through which medications can be accessed, many of which are critically important.”

Mrs Lewis has taken her concerns to the NSW Government, local MPs and Pharmacy Guild Victorian branch president Anthony Tassone.

Mr Tassone said the fact hospital pharmacists, but not community pharmacists, were given exemption from the border order was a "slap in the face" to the tirelessly working teams on both sides of the NSW-Victoria border.

“Pharmacists that are at the front line in patient-facing roles are critical. Full stop. Not just hospital pharmacists, but also absolutely community pharmacists,” he told the Australian Journal of Pharmacy.

“These are communities already stretched and challenged by rural health workforce shortages without a state government telling their teams they’re not considered ‘critical’ enough to be given rights of passage to and from their employ.

“We call upon the NSW government to urgently review this border order and include pharmacists on the front line — not just hospital pharmacists, in the exemption from their border order.”

NSW Member for Murray Helen Dalton held an urgent meeting with Health Minister Brad Hazzard on Wednesday, August 5.

“I told the Health Minister that pharmacists should be included as a critical medical workers and he agreed,” she said.

“He told us he would raise it with the NSW Premier. I’ve also talked to the Cross Border Commissioner and he was of the view that pharmacists were already included.

“I have asked him to provide clarification too. This is urgent, I hope to have some clarity in the next couple of days.

“This situation is absolutely ridiculous. Common sense would suggest pharmacists are critical medical workers, so it’s insane the NSW Government are excluding them.”

Victorian Member for Murray Plains Peter Walsh said this was another example of the anomalies caused by decision makers who did not really grasp river towns in particular and regional Victoria in general.

“When pharmacies are listed as one of the very few services to remain open, but we are stopping the pharmacists getting to their places of employment, it shifts from the farcical to the potentially dangerous because if this impasse means a pharmacy shuts down, that cannot be in anyone’s interest,” he said.

A NSW Department of Customer Service spokesperson encouraged customers to read the comprehensive information at nsw.gov.au about how health orders pertain to the NSW border permits.

“Appeals or requests for interpretation will be handled on a case by case basis. A customer should contact Service NSW on 13 77 88 in the first instance,” the spokesperson told Campaspe News.

“The NSW Government apologises for the frustration and disappointment for people who are not currently eligible for cross the border into NSW. The border permits reflect the ongoing outbreak of COVID-19 in Victoria and the need to minimise the risk of transmission into NSW.”