Liberal Seniors' Group Praises New Wal-Mart Drug Plan

By Randy Hall | July 7, 2008 | 8:23 PM EDT

( - A "nonpartisan" senior citizens' organization that boasts of its social activism found itself in an unusual position on Friday -- praising the country's largest retailer, which has been blasted by liberal Democrats and labor unions.

One day after Wal-Mart announced a plan to sell 30-day supplies of 291 generic medications for a $4 price, Steve Hahn, a spokesman for AARP, praised the retail giant for doing "a good thing" in providing "an important way for Americans to save money and improve their health."

"Anything that's going to put downward pressure on costs is a good thing," Hahn told Cybercast News Service. "For years, we've been asking our members to talk to their physicians about generics when affordability is a concern."

Nevertheless, Hahn noted that AARP -- which promotes itself as "a force for social change" and has opposed the Bush administration on Social Security reform and other issues -- has an interest in prescriptions that goes beyond generic drugs.

"We're also concerned about the cost of brand-name medications," he noted. "We have a new study that we just released this week that shows once again, brand-name medications have gone up at a rate well over that of general inflation, 6.3 percent over the past year."

Hahn stated that the cost of medication is "a top concern of our members," who are 50 years of age or older. "There are four million 50- to 64-year-olds without any health-care coverage at all. Especially for them, prescription drug affordability is an issue that's hitting them hard."

"We hope to see more of this and more companies really stepping up to the plate and responding in a similar way," he noted.

In addition, the issue could have a significant impact on the Nov. 7 midterm elections. An AARP national "pulse poll" found that for nearly 75 percent of those surveyed, the cost of prescription drugs is both a major concern and an issue that could influence their votes.

"Frustration over this issue will lead to action," said AARP Senior Managing Director of Government Relations David Sloane in a press release. For "voters ages 42 and over, the most likely to cast ballots in November," prescription drug affordability "rises to the top of domestic issues."

However, James Martin, president of the conservative 60 Plus Association, was more enthusiastic about Wal-Mart's new program, which began in Tampa Bay, Fla., on Friday and is expected to spread nationwide next year.

"Clearly, this is great news, tremendous news," Martin told Cybercast News Service. "It's early Christmas for senior citizens."

As Cybercast News Service previously reported, Wal-Mart has been described by a conservative leader as "a favorite of God-fearing Middle American customers who hold traditional family values."

Wal-Mart CEO H. Lee Scott, Jr., appeared to cite those values when he noted that the plight of people shopping in the company's stores -- including seniors -- played an important part in the decision to enact the program.

"Each day in our pharmacies, we see customers struggle with the cost of prescription drugs," Scott said. "By cutting the cost of many generics to $4, we are helping to ensure that our customers and associates get the medicines they need at a price they can afford.

"That's a real solution for our nation's working families," he stated.

"Competition and market forces have been absent from our health-care system, and that has hurt working families tremendously," Scott added. "We are excited to take the lead in doing what we do best -- driving costs out of the system -- and passing those savings to our customers and associates."

While seniors' groups were pleased with the plan, organizations representing health-care professionals expressed criticisms of the program.

Most of the drugs on Wal-Mart's list are older generics that are already relatively inexpensive, Stephen Schondelmeyer, professor of pharmaceutical economics at the University of Minnesota, told the Chicago Tribune.

"This isn't addressing what is the source of people's frustrations with drug prices," Schondelmeyer stated. "This is a very limited set of drugs. It's a lot of hype and will create a lot of traffic going into Wal-Mart stores, but I think people are going to be disappointed when they go into the stores and find out their drug isn't there."

Ron Pollack, executive director of the health-care watchdog group Families USA, called Wal-Mart's announcement part of the company's public relations campaign to bolster its image.
"I think what Wal-Mart is doing is a limited good thing," Pollack told the New York Times. "Clearly, this limited, positive initiative is as much a part of Wal-Mart's public relations efforts to blunt the deserved criticism of its poor health coverage for its workers as it is a substantive improvement."

Still, Martin of the 60 Plus Association noted that if the new plan is indeed a public relations stunt, it's a good one.

"We should have more such 'shenanigans' by Wal-Mart," Martin said. "It's wonderful news; I don't care how they slice it."

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