By  on September 22, 2006

Wal-Mart, identifying health care as a business opportunity and a chance to improve its reputation, will start cutting prices today on 291 generic drugs in 65 stores in the Tampa., Fla., region.

The drugs, available to Wal-Mart employees as well as customers, will sell for $4 per prescription compared with as much as $30 for a 30-day prescription. The drugs will be available to people without health insurance as well as the insured.

The world's largest retailer, which announced the initiative Thursday in Tampa, plans to roll out the program statewide in January and nationwide later in 2007.

Wal-Mart's move could attract more customers. The $4 generics are the drugs most often used to full prescriptions at Wal-Mart's pharmacies.

"Competition and market forces have been absent from our health care system, and that has hurt working families tremendously," said Wal-Mart president and chief executive officer H. Lee Scott.

Even though some drug prices will be cut more than 50 percent, Bill Simon, executive vice president of Wal-Mart's professional services division, said the program not a loss leader. Wal-Mart is "geared up to handle a significant increase in volume," he said.

Seeking to blunt criticism that it offers substandard wages and benefits, Wal-Mart in the last year has opened drop-in health clinics for non-urgent care, reduced the wait times for associates to enroll in the company health plan and introduced a low-cost insurance that trades a higher deductible for three free doctors' visits and an $11 monthly premium.

Richard Hastings, vice president of Bernard Sands, said Wal-Mart's move "represents another piece of evidence that the new Wal-Mart is trying to do more than just think about costs."

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