2006 ends on a positive note for consumers

December 1, 2006

Like the wide-eyed toddlers who will stare in awe at their stack of holiday gifts this year, healthcare consumers certainly have a few surprises to get excited about as 2006 comes to a close.

Like the wide-eyed toddlers who will stare in awe at their stack of holiday gifts this year, healthcare consumers certainly have a few surprises to get excited about as 2006 comes to a close.

Talking about the uninsured moved toward doing something about it in 2006. Massachusetts and San Francisco adopted their own versions of universal coverage with variations of public and private initiatives. I was getting a little worried that raising awareness about uninsured Americans was as far as it would go. What a nice surprise that we're seeing real progress and getting past partisan politics.

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Perhaps the best consumer treat of all in 2006 was the retail price war involving generic drugs. Competitive market forces pushed a number of big retailers to offer low-cost and no-cost generic drugs in response to Wal-Mart's new $4 generic program, announced in September.

There's a lot of potential for discount stores, such as Target and Wal-Mart, and supermarkets, such as Giant Eagle and Wegmans, to lure in a greater share of pharmacy customers with deals on generics, data from a Wall Street Journal Online and Harris Interactive poll suggests. Respondents said they currently purchase their prescription drugs most often from chain drug stores (39%) but not as often from discount stores (13%) and supermarkets (the least popular at just 10%). Results also showed that 68% of survey respondents were open to choosing generic drugs over brands more often.

Each chain in the price war has its own generic offer from a few bucks to absolutely free, however, some chains include more drugs on their special price list than others. It will be up to the consumer to figure out which store has the best deal, which discount program is offering which drugs, and whether the bargain is attractive enough to switch their loyalty from the chain drug stores. According to the WSJ/Harris poll, 50% of respondents indicated they would indeed switch to the store that would give them a better deal on the drugs they need.

If consumers are willing to wait outside a discount retailer at 5 a.m. to get a bargain on an iPod, then certainly they must be willing to go there to save on their prescription drugs. I say: smart move, Big Retail. Discount generic pricing has reached a critical mass with more surprises yet to come.

Julie Miller is editor-in-chief of MANAGED HEALTHCARE EXECUTIVE. She can be reached at julie.miller@advanstar.com