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Wal-Mart speeds low-cost drug plan

$4 prescription program may go national this year

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. expects to offer $4 prescriptions for some generic drugs in most states this year after expanding the program from a test market to all of Florida ahead of schedule, the world's largest retailer said yesterday.

Wal-Mart launched the program last month in the Tampa area in what it called an effort to save working Americans money on health care. But critics said it was a stunt to draw in business and a grab for a bigger share of the drug business.

At the time, Wal-Mart said it would expand the Tampa test statewide by January and nationally next year.

But customer demand was strong, and Florida officials asked for a faster rollout, Wal-Mart said. It declared the statewide rollout effective today at a news conference in Orlando, Fla., with Florida Governor Jeb Bush.

It is also accelerating the national plan, said Bill Simon, executive vice president of Wal-Mart's professional services division.

``I would expect that we would be in most of the U S this year. That's the plan," Simon said.

Minneapolis-based Target Corp., the country's number two discounter behind Wal-Mart, said it would match its rival's lower prices in Florida as it did already in the Tampa area.

Walgreen Co., one of the nation's biggest drug store chains, will not cut prices. Spokesman Michael Polzin said 95 percent of Walgreen customers have prescription insurance and the Deerfield, Ill.-based chain has seen no significant effect on its Tampa pharmacies from Wal-Mart's launch there.

Wal-Mart also raised the number of generic prescription drugs offered under the $4-for-a-month's-supply plan to 314 from 291.

The new number comprises 143 drugs in a variety of dosages and solid or liquid forms that together make up the total, up from about 125 drugs when the program started, Wal-Mart said.

Health care experts said any price competition is welcome but noted that generics are less of a burden to consumers than higher-priced brand-name drugs that are still under patent.

``Generics are not very expensive in the first place. It's a good thing to make generic drugs cheaper, but that isn't where most of the big costs are," said Gary Claxton, a vice president of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, which analyses health care issues.

Critics, including independent pharmacies that compete with Wal-Mart, called the plan a publicity stunt to get more shoppers in the door while only covering a fraction of some 8,700 generic drugs approved by the U S Food and Drug Administration.

``It's a loss-leader type program that is solely aimed at getting people in the door at Wal-Mart ," said Charlie Sewell, executive vice president of government affairs at the National Community Pharmacists Association.

Union-backed said many of the $4 drugs were old medicines already offered at low prices by local pharmacies.

Wal-Mart disputed that it was selling the drugs at a loss.

It has said its size and supply chain efficiency allows it to sell the $4 drugs and still turn a profit.

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