December’11 Article in IP

What has the Union ever done for us?

Over many of my last few articles I have been having a go at various arms of the state health infra-structure. And lets face it the various activities of the PSI, HSE, Department of Health and Dr Reilly provide a never ending supply of material for me to write about. But this month I thought that I change my focus a little. Instead of looking at out attackers I thought that I would have a look at our chief defender. So I ask the question, “What has the IPU ever done for us?” First off let me make a declaration of interest here. I am a former treasurer of the union and a former chair of the Employee committee. I strongly believe in the concept of the union and that sticking together is key to our survival especially in these current times. But the question must be asked and is the IPU up to the job and if not then who or what can replace it?
Before we look at what the union does I feel that we have to look back to it’s beginnings. It was created from the Irish Drug Association in 1973 and it’s main role at that time was to act as a representative body for pharmacists who were negotiating with Department of Health at the founding of the GMS. And that has been it’s main role since, negotiation and representation. Lately this has been hampered slightly by the Competition Authority flexing it’s muscles and declaring that we are all individuals and that the union cannot negotiate on our collective behalf. The Irish Competition Authority has managed to do a great U turn in respect of the original intention of Competition Authorities worldwide. Originally they were there to stop large companies ganging up together and price gouging their customers, the public. In Ireland the CA has set itself up to allow government to screw it’s small suppliers, you and me. If you work for the government directly the CA has no problem with a union representing you collectively. If you work on your own behalf for the government then it is little short of high treason to have somebody represent you collectively. I am not under any illusion that I could represent myself properly in any negotiations with the HSE or Department of Health. No more than I would represent myself in court. I would hire somebody skilled in these arts(?) to speak on my behalf. Naturally I would hire the best that I could afford. And if other pharmacists choose the same person or body then all of a sudden we are out-laws. One way around this might be for the IPU to sit down with the HSE and start by stating that today they are negotiating the dispensing fee on behalf of Jordan’s Pharmacy. And when this is complete then they will negotiate on behalf of Murphy’s Pharmacy, then Smith’s Pharmacy and then Jones Pharmacy. Much as we might like it I cannot see the HSE or the CA going for it. I feel that we might have a case for the Ombudsman. They won’t negotiate individually as it is too much hassle and they won’t negotiate collectively as they say that it is in breach of the Competition Act. I’d love to see some case law in this respect.
As the years moved on the union started providing other services that members wanted but weren’t generally available. Today apart from the negotiation and representation the IPU provides a wide range of services to members. It would be hard to pin-point which is the more important or useful. From a members point of view it is the service that they need here and now that is the most vital. For me the most useful are all the services associated with helping us to run our pharmacies. It has often been said that pharmacists are jack of all trades and masters of none. I disagree with this as far I am concerned we are masters of medication and it’s administration. But certainly we
need help with all the other skills that we need to manage a pharmacy. How many of us could train our own staff to the same level as the unions OTC training course? Or for that matter how many could train up our own pharmacy technicians and organise accreditation to match the unions technician course?
Although the union is prevented from representing pharmacists on a collective basis they still help out members when they are dealing with the HSE on a one to one basis on all sorts of issues. The repository of knowledge and experience relating to the HSE and Department of Health that resides in Butterfield House is beyond compare.
A lot of the unions work is on a one to one basis, advising both employer and employee pharmacists on dealing with various HR issues. This will never be published but it is vital work all the same.
As well as dealing with HSE and the Department of Health the union also helps members when they have to deal with the myriad of other government and semi-state bodies that all now feel a need to poke their nose into our pharmacies. As with the HR advice this is never going to be breaking headline type of news but it is important to the members all the same. But for me one of the unions biggest achievements came in the field of IT. Many moons ago the union started pushing for there to be only one product file for all the developing computer systems that were emerging. Many would not be aware of the potential chaos that was brewing as each of the system vendors wanted their own format for a product file. Many of those vendors are long gone but thanks to the union there is only one product file. As I wrote above this is never going to be headline grabbing news but that doesn’t take away from it’s importance.
So the Competition Authority may be restricting the union in it’s role representing pharmacists but there is much more that the IPU does for pharmacy in Ireland. So once again I ask the question. What has the IPU ever done for you? Well apart from the negotiation and representation, business assistance, HR advice, training courses, IT standardisation and all the various PR issues, not very much except help with my peace of mind.
Have a happy Xmas folks. Next year can’t be much worse.

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