Private pharmacies are likely to be invited to set up outlets in public hospitals to supply drugs not covered by government subsidies. The Hospital Authority hopes to call tenders by the end of this year and have the community pharmacies operating in each of its seven hospital clusters in its next budget year. The public-private co-operation plan, disclosed to legislators yesterday, has sparked fears that the market would be dominated by big pharmacies that set higher prices for drugs. Earlier this year the authority had proposed setting up dispensary services in public hospitals, but pharmacists and doctors rejected the idea. The authority's director for professional services and operations, Allen Cheung Wai-lun, told the Legislative Council health services panel that at least one major hospital in each cluster was expected to take part in the tendering. For hospitals where a suitable private partner could not be found, the authority would reconsider setting up its own pharmacies. Dr Cheung stressed that the authority would stick to three principles in tendering: quality of services, convenience for patients and reasonable prices. To ensure quality, there would be controls to cover service hours, staffing, quality of drugs, record-keeping, product complaints and recall protocols. The dispensaries also have to provide an assurance that the pricing of non-subsidised drugs would be comparable to market prices. But Dr Cheung admitted that there were difficulties on pricing: 'Of course, we don't want to see very high prices, but we also cannot ask the private sector to keep drugs at a very low price. It is unfair to them. Probably we would take the market price for reference and set a reasonable range.' Consumer Council chief executive Pamela Chan Wong Shui and Democratic Party lawmaker Yeung Sum were concerned that accepting a tender with the highest bid would lead to higher drug prices because the bidder would pass on the cost to patients. The council received 79 complaints about drugs from January to August this year. Last year, there were 68 for the entire year.