Grocery Chain Giant Offers Free Antibiotics

Grocery retailer Giant, which operates about 160 pharmacies in the mid-Atlantic states, is offering free generic drugs this winter. The company says it knows it will lose money, but says its pharmacists have heard many anecdotes about families struggling.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

It's not surprising to see a lot of competition on prescription-drug pricing. Retailers from Wal-Mart to Target and Safeway have slashed prices for pills to as little as $4 or $5. Well, now, how about free medicine? That's what Giant Foods, a grocery chain based in Maryland, began offering this week for a limited time. And Giant is not the first to try this approach, as NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.

ALLISON AUBREY: Since the Midwestern retail chain Meijer first introduced free antibiotics at their supercenters two years ago, their pharmacists have filled three million prescriptions at no charge, saving customers some $60 million. Now, Giant Foods has a similar giveaway. The company's general manager, Robin Michel, says generic antibiotics will be free through March.

Ms. ROBIN MICHEL (Executive Vice President and General Manager, Giant Food, Inc.) It's not that you don't issue prescriptions or antibiotics year round, but typically, you see a spike in the months of January, February, March. So, how we felt we could help customers is we could help more customers during this timeframe.

AUBREY: Michel says Giant fully expects to lose money on this temporary offer. She says there's no gimmick here, but what the chain may hope to get in return is some customer loyalty and a chance to show that their pharmacists do more than just put pills in a bottle.

Ms. MICHEL: Their job in our stores is to provide, you know, a holistic approach to helping our customers. They can talk to the customers about what works well together, how what you eat will help you in terms of the prescriptions that you're taking.

AUBREY: Slashing prices on prescription drugs or offering them for free is obviously not bad for consumers who need them. In tough economic times, a little help can go a long way. But could free medicine encourage some people to ask for drugs they don't need, say, getting a prescription when you have a bad cold that can't be treated by antibiotics? Physician Sarah Cutrona of the Milford Regional Medical Center, who is not involved in any of these retail offers, says she doesn't think this is a problem.

Dr. SARAH CUTRONA (Physician, Milford Regional Medical Center; Medicine, Harvard Medical School): I can't really imagine that this policy in grocery stores is going to lead to more people going to their doctors and saying, I wouldn't have asked for an antibiotic before, but now that it's free, I'm going to ask you for one.

AUBREY: Cutrona says she's intrigued by the free antibiotics, but she says overall these promotions are not a solution for people who don't have access to care and wouldn't be able to get a prescription, nor do they help the people who are saddled with big prescription drug bills, those with chronic conditions who take medicines over a lifetime.

Dr. CUTRONA: Those medicines are expensive, and many patients are on 10, 15 - a whole lot of medications.

AUBREY: But when it comes to these limited offers of free medicine, they are, perhaps not surprisingly, a big hit with customers. A spokesperson for the Meijer chain says since they launched the giveaway, they've filled nearly 10 times more prescriptions for antibiotics. Allison Aubrey, NPR News Washington.

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