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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Wal-Mart is shaking up the prescription drug business. The giant retail chain announced a pilot program today to fill prescriptions for certain generic drugs for four dollars.

NPR's Joanne Silberner has the story.

JOANNE SILBERNER: Generic drugs are a less-expensive alternative to name brand drugs, but they still come at a cost. The average price to fill a prescription for a generic drug is $29, according to the National Association of Chain Drug Stores. That compares to an average of $102 for brand name drugs.

Starting tomorrow, at Wal-Mart owned pharmacies in the Tampa area, many generic drugs will be available for four dollars per prescription. The company plans to expand the program to all of Florida by January and to other states in the months after that. Executive vice president Bill Simon says the reason is simple.

Mr. BILL SIMON (Wal-Mart): We hear stories all the time from our customers, stories about moms who are faced with difficult decisions about how they may have to forego groceries in some cases to buy antibiotics for a child who is sick, and we can do something about that and today we started to by lowering the price of 291 of our generic prescriptions.

SILBERNER: The company says the list will include generics that treat allergies, high cholesterol, hypertension and diabetes, as well as certain antibiotics, antidepressants and antipsychotics. Wal-Mart's Bill Simon says it's not charity. The company won't be selling the drugs at a loss.

Mr. SIMON: We're able to pass our efficiencies and execute the Wal-Mart business model, just as we do everywhere else in the store.

SILBERNER: Now you might think the generic industry would be pretty worried about serious price competition. But Kathleen Jaeger, head of the Generic Pharmaceutical Association says the companies are ready.

Ms. KATHLEEN JAEGER (Generic Pharmaceutical Association): These products have been on the market for many years, and the price competition there has been very rigorous, and providing these products for a reasonable price is very good for consumers.

SILBERNER: The move won't help people who need brand name drugs when generics aren't available, but still this is a good way to hold at least some costs down, says Gail Shearer with Consumers Union.

Ms. GAIL SHEARER (Consumers Union): Consumers are really suffering with the high cost of drugs, and this will give them a way to get access to a number of drugs at a relatively very affordable price. Now of course we are eager to see what this precise list of drugs looks like, but this could provide an affordable drug option for many consumers.

SILBERNER: The issue of what's on Wal-Mart's list will be looked at closely in the next few days. An official with the National Community Pharmacists Association says some generics are of only limited use, so it's important to see if Wal-Mart has included a broad range. For example, none of the general cholesterol lowering statins are on the list.

Meanwhile, Wal-Mart's competitors are considering what to do. The only complaints so far have come from groups that have criticized Wal-Mart for not providing more generous health benefits to its own workers, though the company has expanded benefits in the past year.

Joanne Silberner, NPR News.

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