Two dollars is still a 67% rise

And that 67% is a big deal. Pharmacy co-pay rates rose from $3 to $5 about a year ago. It’s only $2! Yes, only $2. But those two dollars are a hell of a lot when you live on a benefit or work at minimum wage.

TVNZ had a look at the issue, in particular how rural pharmacies were affected by the rise in costs. It’s hitting rural towns pretty hard, as poverty rates can be quite high, as can the incidence of illness. Rural pharmacies are forced to open tabs that will never be paid, or watch people choose which medications they can afford and leave the rest on hold forever. It’s dire.

But how could $5 cause so many problems? Well, it is the difference between walking home (rather a feat if you’re unwell) and getting the bus. Or being able to get to work on the bus. It’s half a pair of cheap shoes for the kids. It’s a quarter of a big bag of nappies. It’s three loaves of bread. A couple of litres of milk.

If you’re like me, you waltz into the pharmacy with half-a-dozen prescriptions – that’s thirty dollars right there, and that’s a huge amount to come up with when your food budget is only $50 per week for your family. Throwing around $5 per prescription is the difference between bread and milk or nothing. When people are struggling to afford $3 prescriptions, $5 is way out of reach.

I’m sure there is a good reason for the rise. Well, maybe. It’s probably something along the lies of “We don’t want to fund Pharmac adequately” for reasons that may be reasonable, but may not. So there are good political reasons, even if they may not be good reasons with regard to patient welfare.

All the good budgetary reasons in the world can’t make up for the fact that this change is threatening the health of some of the most vulnerable people in our country. People on sickness benefits or invalid’s benefits who need that medicine, but cannot make their very meagre budgets stretch to afford it. Solo mothers who are making hard choices – medicine for the baby or formula? Or maybe just no vegetables for mum (meat went the way of the dodo early on, when the choice of meat or formula came up).

People may protest that this is what the disability allowance is for (although that’s irrelevant to acute illnesses). The truth is, adding in a disability allowance sinks into the grand moneypit. It becomes part of the budget that’s making money look critically endangered. It makes things a little easier, but the budget simply isn’t stretchy enough, even with that input.

$5 is too much for people that are already in need of a community services card. It’s too much for beneficiaries on tight budgets. It’s too much for people on minimum wages. It always comes at the cost of another one of life’s needs.

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