Both pharma giant Pfizer and the Pharmacy Guild of Australia have rejected claims that Australian pharmacists are being paid kickbacks to promote Pfizer's products.
Under a deal between the Guild and Pfizer, pharmacies receive $7 for each patient they sign up to a Pfizer "support program," which allows the drug company to send patients directly regular information related to their condition and nine Pfizer drugs.
Pharmacists are being accused of taking cash for giving patient information to drug companies for marketing purposes.
Pfizer chief executive John Latham dismissed the claims, saying pharmacists were not getting kickbacks and the scheme was not about promoting a product.
"How could it be a kickback when it's open and transparent? A kickback [is when] you're getting patients to sign up for your drugs and that's totally not the case," Mr Latham told Pharmacy News.
"This is not a selling or promoting program ... this is for patients who are actually presenting with a script for a medication [and] it costs nothing to the patient."
Earlier this month, the pharmacists had agreed to market Blackmores dietary supplements to customers alongside prescription drugs. Following a public uproar over the ethics of it all, the deal was scrapped.
The Guild had said then, "The mutual decision has been taken in view of the strong level of public concern about the proposal, based on some media reporting of the endorsement which was ill-informed and inflammatory.
However, perceptions are very important, and it is overwhelmingly clear that the public perception of this endorsement was damaging to the reputation of community pharmacy...."
And now the agreement with the Pfizer.
But the Pharmacy Guild insists there is no comparison between the Pfizer scheme and the dumped Blackmores deal because the scheme applies only to drugs prescribed by doctors and there is no endorsement of the products by pharmacists.
"The Pfizer patient support programs are designed to give patients access to additional information, support and resources specific to that medicine," the guild said in a statement.
"...Pharmacists are paid a small administration fee for their professional time per completed enrolment...no payment is made to the guild."
One of the drugs included in the scheme is Pfizer's cholesterol-lowering blockbuster Lipitor, for which more than 10 million prescriptions were filled last year through the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme at a cost to the taxpayer of almost $600 million.
The deal comes at a time when Pfizer is all set to face competition from cheaper generic versions of the drug when its patent expires early next year.
Patients who sign up for the 12-week support program linked to Lipitor receive a cookbook and weekly emails containing health advice. Other Pfizer drugs with associated support programs are Champix, Xalatan, Viagra, Lyrica, Pristiq, Aricept, Celebrex and Effexor XR.
A pharmacist who did not wish to be named said: "Pharmacists might get a short-term gain of $7 but they are putting patient information into the hands of a drug manufacturer who is obviously going to promote their products directly to that patient.
"It's a back-door way of promoting and advertising."
The scheme has drawn flak from industry bodies like the Pharmaceutical Society of Australia (PSA), which says it's concerned that a drug company is "usurping" the pharmacist's role in giving advice and support to patients.
"PSA does not and cannot support this kind of arrangement," national president Grant Kardachi said in a statement.
The Society of Hospital Pharmacists of Australia (SHPA) says the deal has damaged the reputation of pharmacists and, like the Blackmores deal, puts pharmacists professionalism at stake.
A blogger insists, "The Pharmacy Guild better clear up their act, introduce some transparency into their deals, and elect a new and trustworthy board, before the damage and the loss of trust in pharmacists becomes irreparable."