Wal-Mart expands $4 prescription drug program

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Wal-Mart Stores Inc on Thursday said it added more medicines to its $4 prescription program, including some new generic drugs, as part of its push to expand its health and wellness services.

The world’s largest retailer said it will make available for $4 drugs to treat glaucoma, attention deficit disorder/hyperactivity disorder, fungal infections and acne. Fertility and prescription birth control will be available for $9, Wal-Mart said.

Last year, Wal-Mart began selling some generic drugs for $4 per monthly prescription in September and by the end of November had extended the program to all its U.S. pharmacies -- far ahead of schedule.

The company said $4 prescriptions now account for nearly 40 percent of all prescriptions filled in its Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club and Neighborhood Market pharmacies. It estimates that over the past year, the program has saved customers $613.6 million.

“We’ll be far north of 40 percent with this expansion,” Wal-Mart Chief Operating Officer Bill Simon said on a conference call.

“We now have coverage in virtually every therapeutic category that patients or customers are dealing with on a day-to-day basis,” Simon said, adding that birth control and fertility drugs should be among the program’s strongest growth areas.

While consumer groups and industry watchers applauded the expanded program, they noted that it does not address the often crippling cost of brand-name prescription medicines, as those on Wal-Mart’s discount list are already cut-priced generics.

“Any effort to put drugs in the hands of the people who need them is certainly welcome, but we need to focus our efforts on bringing down the cost of brand-name drugs, where prices are rising faster than people can afford,” said Drew Nannis, a spokesman for AARP, a nonprofit membership organization for people ages 50 and over.

Robert Willoughby, an analyst for Bank of America, did not see the program having significant impact on overall drug costs or on companies that manage healthcare benefits.

“We view the expanded offering as still too limited for a payor to carve out the drugs from more comprehensive brand and generic drug formularies and require members to go to Wal-Mart pharmacies,” Willoughby said in a research note.

“While the program should be lauded as a tangible effort to reduce the drug cost trend, it does little to bring payors savings on brands, a far greater health care cost and clearly a greater concern,” he said.

Gail Shearer, director of Consumer Reports Best Buy Drugs, said the Wal-Mart program will help to further educate people about generic medicines.

“It’s a needed message to consumers that they do have drug choices and that there are some options for getting access to certain affordable medications,” she said.

Simon said Wal-Mart’s pharmacies have seen double-digit comparable store sales growth since the program began last fall in Tampa, Florida.

Earlier this year, it said it would open as many as 400 in-store health clinics in the next two to three years, and that number could jump to 2,000 in five to seven years.

Wal-Mart’s shares were up 55 cents, or 1.3 percent, to $43.85 on the New York Stock Exchange.

Reporting by Martinne Geller, Justin Grant and Bill Berkrot