Almost half of independent community pharmacies do not agree that wholesaler surcharge prices are fair, a report by the National Pharmacy Association (NPA) has revealed.

The report, based on a survey of 190 NPA members at an unspecified point this year, benchmarks wholesalers against 22 service standards developed by the lobbying group in 2014 in consultation with its members.

The wholesaler service standards – which cover fairness, responsiveness and courtesy, timely communication, efficient service and transparency – outline what is ‘reasonable’ for independent pharmacy contractors to expect from wholesalers, the NPA said.

The report found that 44% of respondents disagreed that wholesalers have ‘a fair pricing system for surcharges, which are only applied when clearly justifiable and proportionate, and the pharmacy is never penalised by surcharges for matters outside of its control.’

Out of the five core areas, contractors rated wholesalers worst for ‘fairness’, with ‘a large proportion’ of respondents scoring a one out of five (very poor/failing) for the standards in this area, according to the report.

The NPA added: ‘In some cases, members reported missing stock, an inability to speak with wholesalers easily, credits not refunded in a timely manner or at all and surcharges not properly explained.’


‘Continuing challenges’


Contractors are ‘unhappy with key aspects of the service they receive from wholesalers’ and face ‘continuing challenges’ with quotas, communication and surcharges, the NPA added.

The report found that almost seven in 10 (68%) respondents believe that quotas are not allocated equitably, with almost half (47%) rating wholesalers as ‘very poor’ in this area.

Almost two-thirds (61%) said wholesalers were ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’ at adjusting the pharmacy’s quotas promptly when requested and only 6% of pharmacists agreed that they can view a written policy on how wholesaler-managed quotas are operated on request.


‘Poor’ communication


Ranked highest were the ‘responsiveness and courtesy’ of wholesalers, with almost a third (30%) of pharmacists rating staff as ‘excellent’ for being courteous.

However, the report found that wholesalers ‘don’t respond adequately’ to queries and complaints, with more than half (53%) of pharmacists saying wholesalers are ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’ at responding within three hours during the working day, the NPA added.

Half of respondents (50%) also said they are not notified of supply problems or given an explanation or estimated delivery date when ordering stock.


‘Supply issues’


The report found that community pharmacies typically spend six to 10 hours a week ‘managing stock supply issues’, with 37% of those who responded to the question selecting this option.

A spokesperson for the NPA said: ‘[We] recognise that the causes of supply problems are multi-faceted and can sometimes be outside of the wholesaler’s control’.

Almost half (48%) of respondents disagreed that wholesalers are ‘almost always able to supply products requested’, while almost a third (30%) reported that orders are not delivered promptly.

Last year, The Pharmacist revealed that over a third of contractors had to deal with more than six or more wholesalers on a weekly basis due to stock shortages. 

Meanwhile, the first serious shortage protocols (SSPs) were issued this month to tackle shortages of the antidepressant fluoxetine, allowing community pharmacists in England to supply an alternative strength or formulation of the drug without having to go back to the patient’s GP for an updated script.


‘High level of dissatisfaction’


NPA head of corporate affairs Gareth Jones said: ’There is still a high level of dissatisfaction among independent pharmacies about the standard of service they get from wholesalers.

Improvements seem to have been made in some areas, but the picture is mixed and many independents feel they are not always treated fairly.’

The NPA has had a ‘constructive’ discussion with the Healthcare Distribution Association (HDA) about the results of the report and will work with the HDA and other pharmacy bodies to ‘tackle the issues’, Mr Jones added.

He said: ‘Some relatively small changes from their perspective can make a big difference to our members on the front line.’