Collingwood locals fight plan to axe pharmacy

Nearly 100 people turned out to a hastily called community meeting to defend a local health service in Melbourne’s inner north on 21 May. Elderly migrant residents of the nearby public housing estates made up most of the loud and angry meeting, held at the Cohealth medical centre in Collingwood.

“Tony Abbott needs to give us more money”, insisted Stan, originally from Yugoslavia, who spoke to Red Flag. “This chemist must stay here. We in the Cohealth centre will fight together so we will be more strong.”

Cohealth is not your average medical centre. It is a one-stop community health centre with the only fully funded not-for-profit community pharmacy in the country. Locals and Cohealth staff were taken by surprise when the pharmacy’s funding was axed in the federal budget.

Cohealth supports the marginalised: refugees, the elderly, people with a disability and others doing it tough. It sells medicines at around 30 percent less than the national average.

“People are poor”, says Stan. “They come to see the doctor, buy their prescriptions and get their tablets from the pharmacy. Elders and people in wheelchairs that need taxis, refugees that need translators – it will cost them double … people may not go and [will] get very sick.’’ “I want to fight! We want to fight! Because people here, we understand”, he says.

Cohealth chief executive Lyn Morgain and Greens MP Adam Bandt addressed the meeting. Both spoke of the need for a campaign. Five interpreters, each in a different language, relayed every point made by the speakers. The crowd responded with waves of cheers or sneers.

Lyn Morgain explained that the centre’s integrated GP-pharmacy model saved the government’s health budget $346,000 a year. “It is the only pharmacy that’s been saving the government money”, she said. This fact is not disputed by the government.

Instead, the budget papers justify the cut, according to Morgain, as “fixing up an anomaly” in the predominantly profit-driven pharmaceutical sector. One resident proudly argued that this “anomaly” actually “saves lives and should be spread across the country.”

Shafeeqa, an Afghan woman, spoke to Red Flag, with the aid of an interpreter. Like many who use the centre, she relies on the on-site interpreting services provided at Cohealth to communicate with health care workers.

“Big families with kids in the estate rely on this pharmacy. They see the doctors here and then get their prescription straight away. It is easy for them, also for older people, and the price is affordable”, she says.

“Our government does not care about us, does not care about refugees, does not care about any one.”

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