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Cheap generic drugs debut at Wal-Mart

WORTHINGTON -- Beginning today, Wal-Mart pharmacies across Minnesota will begin offering its customers generic prescription drugs for just $4 per 30-day supply.

Eleven states -- totaling 811 pharmacies -- were added to the program in this latest expansion, marking the retail giant's nationwide goal to offer low-cost generic prescriptions to all of its customers. During a Monday morning conference call, Julie Idelkope, senior manager of public affairs for Wal-Mart's 64 stores in Minnesota, said the prescription drug program began in Florida on Sept. 21.

Plans were to complete the nationwide push by January 2007, Idelkope added, but customer demand fueled the drive to reach the goal ahead of schedule.

"Today is really an exciting day for Wal-Mart customers and associates," said Idelkope, who said the $4 prescription generic program is now available in the chain's 3,810 pharmacies.

Not all generic prescription drugs are available at the $4 price, however, although that may change in the future. Idelkope said their main goal was to take the program nationwide, with plans to evaluate and potentially expand the number of generics in time. Beginning today, Idelkope said 331 generic drugs will be offered at the $4 rate -- an increase from the previous 291 generics.

Steve Hansen, RPH and pharmacy manager of Wal-Mart in Worthington, said another set of generics will be available at a rate of $9 per 30-day supply because of Minnesota laws that regulate pricing.

Since Wal-Mart began the price-dropping campaign in September, Hansen said he has had a number of customers asking when Worthington would be offering the new lower price. He suspects some even drove across the state line -- to Wal-Mart stores in Iowa or South Dakota -- to get their prescriptions filled because those stores went online earlier. Medicare recipients may fill up to four prescriptions at the $4 rate per visit, while non-Medicare customers can get up to three prescriptions filled at one time.

Idelkope said the lower prices aren't just beneficial to the elderly, but to the uninsured and low income populations, as well as those who have "fallen into the donut hole" in the Medicare Part D plan.

"That's one of the beauties of this program," she said. "The $4 program provides a solution to the 46 million uninsured Americans."

Idelkope estimates one in four of the prescriptions currently filled by Wal-Mart pharmacies qualifies for the $4 price.

So, how does Wal-Mart manage to offer generic prescriptions at such a low rate? Chalk it up to the perks of big business.

"Wal-Mart is applying its business strength to the health care system," Idelkope said. "That's what we do, and that's what we do best. We're really using our size and our buying power so that we can best offer low-cost pharmaceuticals to our customers."

Competing pharmacies don't see it that way, however. Some say Wal-Mart's low prices for prescription drugs are nothing more than a publicity campaign to get customers into their stores.

In Worthington, neither Sterling Drug nor The Medicine Shoppe expect Wal-Mart's pricing campaign to impact their businesses significantly.

"When 90 percent of our patients have insurance right now, it's not going to impact very many people," said Jason Turner, owner of The Medicine Shoppe. "The insurance paid on those meds (on the Wal-Mart $4 list) generally takes those prescriptions down to those prices anyway."

At Sterling Drug's downtown location, Bryan Hagen said people shouldn't look at price alone when deciding where to get their prescriptions filled.

"You need to know who your pharmacist is," he said. "When people bounce around to pharmacies, all the pharmacies don't have the histories of their medications."

Hagen said because of the dangers of drug interactions, people should not split their prescriptions between pharmacies based on where they can get the best deal.

Although Hagen said he anticipates some of his customers will "test the market," he's optimistic he can compete with Wal-Mart.

"We've always said we'll meet or beat our competition," Hagen said.

That may mean getting drug companies -- even the generics -- to lower their prices on prescription drugs sold to pharmacies.

"The generic industry is really not the problem," Turner said. "It's the brand-name industry that's breaking our health care system. Generic prescriptions are at a fraction of what the name brand is.

"If somebody wants to make an impact in health care, they want to encourage the use of generics and use less and less brand names," Turner continued. "Hopefully, name brand companies ... will see the light."

A listing of the generic medications offered at the $4 price is available by visiting, or by stopping at the pharmacy counter at the local Wal-Mart.

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at

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