St. Louis County Board OKs discount drug card for residentsCommissioners voted 7-0 to participate in the National Association of Counties’ discount drug program, despite lingering concerns that the program could hurt some local pharmacies.
By: John Myers, Duluth News Tribune
St. Louis County residents will have access to a discount prescription drug card, thanks to action Tuesday by the county board.
Commissioners voted 7-0 to participate in the National Association of Counties’ discount drug program, despite lingering concerns that the program could hurt some local pharmacies.
The cards are free and available to all residents of the county with no exceptions for age, income or medical condition.
Supporters say the cards offer discounts of up to 22 percent off pharmaceutical purchases. They can be used at many national and local drug stores, and the program costs the county nothing to offer. Local pharmacies have the option to accept the cards.
The cards should be available within about two months at county offices and drug stores.
“We’re simply trying to give people who live in St. Louis County a way to save some money on prescription drugs,” said Commissioner Steve O’Neil, adding that the card will most benefit people who have no insurance, no drug coverage or high deductibles.
The vote came after hours of sometimes bitter debate over the county’s role in promoting any single pharmacy company over another and concerns that a large national company could encroach on local businesses.
The county discount card program is administered by Caremark, a national pharmaceutical benefits management company that also owns CVS mail-order pharmacy. While the county discount cards are accepted by thousands of pharmacies, including independents, Wal-Mart and Walgreens, Caremark has been accused of using the program to drive business to its mail-order pharmacy subsidiary and away from hometown pharmacies.
Steve Preston, president of Duluth-based Falk’s Pharmacy, urged commissioners to vote against the measure, saying the card discounts not only will eat into small pharmacy profits but that Caremark will prey on local business.
“Caremark is CVS; there’s no difference,” Preston said. “You’re putting the discount on the backs of the pharmacies.”
Peterson noted that there are a wealth of other discount cards and programs available, most of them without obligation, for consumers to cut costs on drugs.
The resolution adopted Tuesday includes a provision whereby the county must offer a Web site link to any discount card available to local residents, not just the National Association of Counties card.
Commissioners also included a provision that made participation officially a “pilot program” to be revisited at the end of one year to see if it is helping residents save money or hurting local pharmacies.
The discount card program already is in use by more than 1,200 of the nation’s 3,068 counties. Of those, 30 are in Minnesota, including Aitkin, Carlton, Itasca, Lake and Koochiching Counties.
The counties association has offered the program since 2005 and claims cardholders have received an average 22 percent discount on drugs. Counties make no money on the program and, after signing up, aren’t involved. The association says 17 million prescriptions have been filled under the program, saving cardholders more than $224 million.
Andrew Goldschmidt, who heads the program for the counties association, said there’s no way to know how many people are participating because the cards are given out at no charge and no sign-up is required. But he said feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, including from local pharmacies in counties where it’s offered.
Nearly one in four Minnesotans younger than 65 had no health insurance for all or part of 2007-08, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics.