Though some perceive Wal-Mart’s latest pricing gimmick as nothing more than a PR pick-me-up, the discount chain’s recent price rollback marks the first of its kind. Last week, executives announced Wal-Mart pharmacies will sell a variety of popular generic drugs at a maximum of four dollars per monthly supply. The drug incentive began this week in Tampa, FL, though Wal-Mart hopes to stock all its pharmacies across America with these four-dollar generics soon. Wal-Mart’s plan will certainly do more than just boost sales and mend its image – it will make some prescription drugs more affordable for consumers. However, even if the four-dollar trend swept through pharmacies nationwide, making prescription drugs more affordable is only one element of a comprehensive set of health care reforms America needs.

Sarah Royce

Wal-Mart has been sure to highlight that the official list of generic drugs offered at four dollars a month totals 291 medications – though some prescriptions are counted multiple times for different dosages and forms. Nonetheless, Wal-Mart’s pharmacy plan does include 90 of the most popular antibiotics, antidepressants and other prescription drugs commonly found in medicine cabinets across America. Other superstore chains, such as Target, are already imitating Wal-Mart’s latest price-slashing concept.

The discount on generic drugs will benefit consumers – including Wal-Mart employees, who need cheaper drugs thanks to their poverty-level wages and inadequate health insurance. Not only do insured individuals have the option to purchase the four-dollar drugs and sidestep the hassle of dealing with insurance companies, but uninsured consumers will be able to buy some prescription drugs at affordable rates.

With nearly 50 million uninsured citizens, many Americans have inadequate financial resources to access preventive health care, such as doctors’ visits and screenings. Wal-Mart cannot act as the sole defense in the battle to overcome pricey drugs. Without access to affordable health care, many Americans will still be beleaguered by high medical costs.

While pharmacies backed by large corporations are able to negotiate lower drug costs with pharmaceutical companies, Medicare can’t use its sheer size to bargain for lower drug prices. Republican legislators – who would be quick to point to Wal-Mart’s drug plan as an example of the free market addressing the nation’s health care crisis – made sure that the legislation enabling Medicare to offer prescription drug coverage also forbade Medicare from negotiating for lower prices. Remedying that error would save money – and the savings could be used to narrow the “doughnut hole” in Medicare drug coverage. Currently, participants must cover the full price of their drugs once the total cost – to the plan and the consumer – reaches $2,250; coverage doesn’t pick up again until the consumer, often a retiree on a fixed income, has paid more than $3,000 out of pocket.

Wal-Mart’s plan has shown the market can provide part of the solution to high drug costs. But it is not a solution to the lack of affordable health care. A four-dollar prescription is useless to those can’t afford to see a doctor. While Wal-Mart’s plan may relieve some costs, America’s health care system will need far more comprehensive change to provide universal care. Recent census data show the number of uninsured is rising, while the proportion of the population covered by an employer’s health plan is falling. Access to health care, it appears, is rapidly becoming a luxury good – and that’s a failing that no single corporation can address.

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