By Deana Driver

EDMONTON — Pharmacists across the country have taken some hits recently from the federal government’s non-insured health benefits (NIHB) program. Bucking this national trend, Alberta pharmacists have managed to negotiate a slightly better fee schedule. What’s more, they are optimistic that their discussions have created a basis for a better working relationship.

Earlier this year, the Alberta Pharmaceutical Association (APhA) asked to meet with Health Canada after learning that it planned to eliminate the NIHB dispensing fee on OTC medicines and increase the markup to 50% (from 5% to 10%), as of April 1st.

Under the new deal, reached in June, the government will continue to pay the full dispensing fee of $8.50 for behind-the-counter products, as designated by Alberta’s drug schedules. The agreement is retroactive to April 1.

The APhA also negotiated to replace the 50% markup for other OTCs with a $5 “processing allowance,” says Harold Lopatka, APhA’s director of pharmacy economics.

“Many pharmacists are happier” under this new deal, says Lopatka. “Most OTCs processed for native patients are the lowest-priced ones. With this formula, on average, [pharmacists] seem to do better.”

Representatives for the NIHB plan also agreed “to leave pharmacy payments alone for two years,” says Lopatka. During that time, the two groups will work together on a drug utilization review program similar to the one in progress with the provincial government. “We’re big on partnering here,” says Lopatka.

Not all pharmacists are happy with the new deal, admits Lopatka. “Some pharmacists think it equates to a $5 dispensing fee.

“We were very careful to call it a processing allowance. It’s where we want to go with disbursements,” he continues. “We’ve created the concept of processing. An overwhelming amount of people are supportive of it.”

Rob Humphreys, who operates a Value Drug Mart in Cardston, near the province’s largest native reserve, is a reluctant supporter of the NIHB amendments. “What it actually comes down to is a reduction in the fee we’re being paid for any OTC product,” says Humphreys. “It’s one of those situations where they take everything away from you and then offer a little bit back so you think you’ve done good.”

Still, Alberta pharmacists should be proud of what they’ve accomplished. “From what we’ve heard, in some of the other provinces there was no attempt to fight [the NIHB changes,” says Humphreys. “It seems like we’re in a lot better position than we have ever been in the past. [The relationship with NIHB] has always been adversarial. We’ve taken a big hit in our fees, but we feel like this might help in our future negotiations.”

Nonetheless, despite the $5 processing allowance and the full dispensing fee on other products, Humphreys says his pharmacy will be hit hard. “We took a $3.50 cut in a fee, so that significantly impacts your business.”

A spokesperson for the NIHB plan was unavailable for comment.