About face: St. Louis County holds off on residents' discount prescription drug planCommissioners tabled a plan to join the National Association of Counties’ Prescription Discount Card Program that’s available to all residents.
By: John Myers, Duluth News Tribune
St. Louis County Commissioners on Tuesday pulled back on a plan to offer county residents discount prescription drug cards, saying the program may hurt local pharmacies.
The cards, offered to residents of member counties of the National Association of Counties, are supposed to help uninsured and underinsured residents save money on prescription drugs.
The proposal had been backed by most commissioners at a September workshop meeting. But the board did an about-face Tuesday morning in Duluth and voted to table the plan after local and regional pharmacies said it might drive business to a national mail-order pharmacy.
“We shouldn’t be involved in something that chases business out of our county,’’ said Commissioner Keith Nelson of Eveleth, adding that the board needs to investigate the issue further before taking action.
The counties group has offered the program since 2005 and claims cardholders have received an average 22 percent discount on prescription drugs. Counties make no money on the program and, after signing up, aren’t involved. There are no age, income or health restrictions for residents who use the cards, and the group claims some 17 million prescriptions have been filled under the program, saving cardholders more than $224 million.
Some 1,260 of the nation’s 3,068 counties are participants. That includes more than 30 Minnesota counties, among them Aitkin, Carlton, Itasca, Lake and Koochiching.
The program is administered by Caremark, a national pharmaceutical benefits management company that also owns CVS mail order pharmacies. While the discount cards are accepted by thousands of pharmacies — including independents, Wal-Mart and Walgreens — Casemark has been accused of using the program to drive business to its mail-order pharmacy subsidiary.
Andrew Goldschmidt, who heads the program for the counties group, said there’s no way to know how many people are participating because the cards are given out free and no sign-up is required. But he said feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, including from local pharmacies in counties where it’s offered.
“In a lot of counties, the pharmacies are giving out the cards right in the store. People can see instant savings,” he said. “What we’re hearing is that it’s driving more business into the local stores, not taking it away.’’
But Nelson said Caremark has been accused of predatory pricing and has been under investigation is some states for deceptive practices, including selling patient information to drug companies.
Gary Baylor, pharmacy director for the Twin Cities-based Thrifty White Drug chain of stores, said the discount card program will hurt main street businesses across St. Louis County, adding that local pharmacists already are offering deep discounts on generic drugs and that they work to get other discounts from drug manufacturers for patients who can’t afford their medicine.
“This card may appear innocuous, but it’s anything but. CVS is trying to pull patients out of the local pharmacy and pull them into their mail order plan’’ based in Arizona, Baylor told commissioners Tuesday
While Commissioner Steve O’Neil of Duluth supported tabling the measure until Dec. 1, he also stressed the need to help county residents cut their medical costs. Commissioner Steve Raukar of Hibbing agreed.
“People need help with pharmaceuticals,’’ Raukar said.
Nearly one in four Minnesotans younger than 65 had no health insurance for all or part of 2007-2008, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics.