NEW YORK - Wal-Mart Stores Inc., facing pressure from critics who call its employee health care coverage inadequate, plans to begin selling nearly 300 generic prescription drugs for a sharply reduced price of $4 for a month's supply.
The world's biggest retailer said Thursday that it will test the program in Florida and it will include 291 generic drugs available for conditions from allergies to high-blood pressure. The plan is available to its employees and customers, including those without insurance.
Wal-Mart officials said the reduced price represents a savings to the customer of up to 70 percent on some drugs.
''Wal-Mart is taking this step so our customers and associates can get the medicines they need at a cost they can afford,'' Bill Simon, executive vice president of the company's professional services division, said in announcing the plan at a Tampa, Fla., store.
The program will be launched today at 65 Wal-Mart, Neighborhood Market and Sam's Club pharmacies in the Tampa Bay area and will be expanded to the entire state in January.
Simon wouldn't be specific about why Florida - and specifically the Tampa Bay area - was chosen for the rollout of the initiative, saying only that there was a need for it here.
The company said it plans to expand the program to as many states as possible next year.
Simon said the 291 generic drugs include ''the most commonly prescribed drugs for the some of the most common illnesses that face Americans today, including cardiac disease, asthma, diabetes, glaucoma, Parkinson's (disease) and thyroid conditions.''
Simon wouldn't give details on how much the plan is expected to cost Wal-Mart or the company's dealings with the drug companies involved.
''We're able to do this by using one of our greatest strengths as a company - our business model and our ability to drive costs out of the system, and the model that passes those costs savings to our customers,'' he said. ''In this case, we're applying that business model to health care.''
The $4 prescriptions are not available by mail order and are being offered online only if picked up in person in the Tampa Bay area.
In a conference call with reporters, Simon said that the generic drugs would not be sold at a loss to entice customers into the stores, a strategy that has been used in Wal-Mart's toy business.
He said Wal-Mart is working with drugmakers to help them be more efficient, but added, ''We are working with them as partners. We are not pressuring them to reduce prices.''
Tampa Wal-Mart pharmacy customer Pat Sullivan praised the company's initiative. The retired Massachusetts police officer said $4 generic prescriptions are a tremendous help.
''I'm on disability and my benefits run out by the end of the month,'' he said. ''It comes down to where do I go for a $100 prescription? I have no outlet other than to break a pill in half and take half today and half tomorrow.''
The initiative is the fourth since last October that Wal-Mart has moved to improve health benefits.