Probe Into Legality Of Methadone Boycott Launched

The Competition Authority is launching a full investigation into the controversial decision by pharmacists to withdraw from a scheme providing drug addicts with methadone.

It is understood that a garda and an official from the authority have visited the premises of 21 pharmacists and served them with an order to appear before the authority to explain their actions.

The authority began its inquiry last Friday, sending letters to some 140 pharmacists.

Yesterday, the authority launched a full and formal investigation to determine whether the pharmacists are breaking the law by collectively withdrawing from the methadone scheme.

Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, meanwhile, condemned the pharmacists, saying that they are unfairly using recovering addicts as leverage in the dispute, which could lead to some current methadone users returning to heroin.

In the letters sent last Friday, the Competition Authority advised the pharmacists to seek legal advice before embarking on their action.

It is understood that 21 of the group have now been sent letters containing a summons requesting them to appear before the Competition Authority with legal representation.

“It’s not clear whether there was co-ordinated activity between the pharmacists, but that’s what it looks like at the moment,” a spokeswoman for the authority said.

Pharmacists are withdrawing from the methadone dispensing scheme in protest at the decision of the Health Service Executive (HSE) to cut the mark-up paid to wholesalers for drugs, which are dispensed by pharmacists under the medical card scheme.

The Irish Phamaceutical Union (IPU) claims that this will essentially turn the dispensing of drugs by them to medical card holders into a loss-making exercise.

A spokesman for the IPU said the Competition Authority’s move was a “worrying development and particularly unhelpful at this time”.

However, the Registrar of the Pharmaceutical Society of Ireland (PSI), Dr Ambrose McLoughlin, last night advised all pharmacists to ensure that they are all “familiar with the ethical obligations of the profession”.

“We would remind pharmacists and pharmacy owners that they continue to have a duty of care to patients. And if there are delays or complications in alternative sources of methadone being put in place, in the interim they have a duty of care to fulfil to patients,” he said.