OVER six-million concession card holders have been told by the federal government that they can collect free Rapid Antigen Tests from Monday; but what's the point when there's scarce available?
Widespread supply shortages has left local pharmacies already struggling to supply RATs at a cost. So, the fact that the popular kits will now have a 'free' stamp on the boxes for some, has just made it all the more complicated.
Starchem pharmacist in Orange, Naruemon Anggurarat talked about the ongoing dilemmas for smaller pharmacies with regard to lack of RAT supply.
"At the moment, we don't actually have any - at all," Ms Anggurarat said.
[Government] want to plan something, but when implementing that plan - it's just not feasible.Orange's Starchem pharmacist, Naruemon 'Pinky' Anggurarat
"There has definitely been an increasing number of calls as well, where we're receiving a high volume of enquiries with regard to free RAT kits; and unfortunately, we have to turn people away."
Earlier in January, Prime minister Scott Morrison announced the roll-out of free RAT kits for concession card holders, covering low-income earners, veterans, and pensioners.
Those eligible would have access to up to 10 free rapid tests in a three-month window, with a limit capped at no more than five tests per person in a one-month period.
Bigger chain pharmacies like Orange's Chemist Warehouse, however, has been able to loudly promote its stocked-up supply on a promotional flyer for this week's RAT roll-out.
We have adequate stock to assist concession card holders with RATs.A spokesperson from Chemist Warehouse in Orange
Despite a queue of concession card holders literally trailing out the doors of the big Summer Street pharmacy on Monday, along with public hearsay that it would run out of RATs the same afternoon, the store confirmed otherwise.
Chemist Warehouse in Orange confirmed it has a twice-weekly recharge of stock.
"We have adequate stock to assist concession card holders with RATs," a store spokesperson said.
"[Chemist Warehouse in Orange] has five-pack RATs stock being delivered two times each week."
Though, for smaller pharmacies like Starchem, it's just not as easy.
"Everyone is experiencing the same thing across all pharmacies - including colleagues of mine who work in Sydney chemists - who aren't able to secure any stock from suppliers either," Ms Anggurarat said.
"We've got a hundreds on backorder, and we're still waiting for [the shipment] to arrive."
Under the guidelines that pharmacies will be able to apply for reimbursement through government channels, pharmacists like Ms Anggurarat are also still awaiting direction - or any kind of communication.
"We thought, originally, government would supply stock to give to concession card holders after announcing the plan - a plan without warning - but apparently its not [the government's] responsibility," she said.
We haven't [received] any direct communication or email or any [correspondence] to say what the claiming process will be for pharmacies.Orange's Starchem pharmacist, Naruemon 'Pinky' Anggurarat
While the new 'free RAT' scheme has already shown some fairly evident cracks, the over-inflated market for chemists to source and acquire those tests is another huge pressure.
According to the federal government, its agreed to pay pharmacies $22 for two RAT kits under the scheme, with an additional Infrastructure and Handling Fee (IHF) of $4.30.
Similarly, it's said the government will reimburse pharmacies $55 - plus the same $4.30 IHF fee - for every five pack of RATs.
But with pharmacies battling-it-out in the open market - and with what appears to be guided by little to no word from government with reimbursements - most are out of pocket while still trying to meet the ever-growing RAT demands.
"We haven't [received] any direct communication or email or any [correspondence] to say what the claiming process will be for pharmacies," Ms Anggurarat said.
"And how we are supposed to record, report or track who has received [the free RATs] and who hasn't, when there's been no proper communication?"
During the early January announcement for the eligible card holders, prime minister Scott Morrison's seemingly "simple" direction to the public was this:
"You would go along to the chemist, they will give you one and then they will take your details," Mr Morrison said.
PSA and other health bodies were stressing the importance of securing RAT supply and establishing effective distribution networks with government over six months ago.PSA National President, A/Prof Chris Freeman
"They will obviously get your concession card details ... and there will be a rebate system that works back to the pharmacy."
Ms Anggurarat, however, says with no RAT kits in stock, the plan is just "not feasible".
"[Smaller] pharmacies need more support from the government with what they want to implement, and there's been no support as yet from government with how this is all supposed to work," Ms Anggurarat said.
A peak pharmaceutical group appeared to echo Ms Anggurarat's views, with the Pharmaceutical Society of Australia's national president, Chris Freeman, adding pharmacies are "at breaking point".
"This ongoing predicament with RAT continues to place huge pressure on the profession," Mr Freeman said.
"Our pharmacists are working around the clock to source their own supply of these tests, whilst juggling a huge number inquiries from patients about stock availability."
The peak body had also urged government - several months ago - to secure more stock, despite an essentially radio silence response; another element contributing to an unfeasible plan.
"Governments keep telling people to get tested - and people are trying to do the right thing - but there is still a lot of confusion in the community," Mr Freeman added.
"PSA and other health bodies were stressing the importance of securing RAT supply and establishing effective distribution networks with government over six months ago.
"[Pharmacists] have reported receiving on average, four-calls-a-minute in relation to RATs. This is simply not sustainable."