Wal-Mart rolling back drug prices

A Wal-Mart store sign in Illinois

KAI RYSSDAL: The retailer famous for rolling back prices is putting some muscle to the cost of prescription drugs. Wal-Mart announced today it's going to offer nearly 300 generic drugs at just four bucks for a month's supply. Helen Palmer has the story from the Marketplace Health Desk at WGBH.


HELEN PALMER: Patients in Florida will be the first to get this price break thanks to the Wal-Mart business model, says the company's Bill Simon.
BILL SIMON: One of our assets and skills as a company is our ability to make and acquire and distribute products efficiently and then pass that savings to our customers.

Among the drugs are generics to treat heart disease, diabetes, asthma, allergies, as well as some antibiotics and antidepressants.

SIMON: It's a limited set of drugs — although, if you need one of them, it's an advantage.

Steve Schondelmeyer teaches the economics of pharmacy at the University of Minnesota. He says newer generics like Zocor aren't on the Wal-Mart list. The company plans to extend the program to other states. Schondelmeyer says that could have larger consequences.

STEVE SCHONDELMEYER: It may lead to closing of other community pharmacies so that in the future Wal-Mart may be the only place in some communities where people can go to get their prescriptions filled.

Independent pharmacists echo that. John Rector represents the Association of Community Pharmacists, all 25,000 of them. Rector says the sums just don't add up, and Wal-Mart's engaging in illegal predatory pricing — charging less than cost.

JOHN RECTOR: Even a large company like Wal-Mart has costs associated with the dispensing of a prescription, and they're well in excess of $4.

Rector says community pharmacists need to charge an $8-$10 dispensing fee to stay in business.

Wal-Mart's Bill Simon didn't say what this program will actually cost the company.

Rector says Wal-Mart's faced lawsuits for predatory pricing before, and may this time too.

In Boston, I'm Helen Palmer for Marketplace.

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