St. Louis County Board OKs discount drug card for residentsSt. Louis County residents will have access to a discount prescription drug card, thanks to action Tuesday by the County Board.
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.
“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 cards offer a discount based on the large number of people expected to use it, similar to those offered through large employers or organizations. Critics, however, say the cards may not offer any better discounts than are available through other programs.
Supporters say the cards offer discounts of up to 22 percent. They can be used at many national and local drugstores, and the program costs the county nothing. Local pharmacies can choose whether to accept the cards.
The cards should be available within about two months at county offices and drugstores.
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 the 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.”
Preston 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.
Gary Anderson, pharmacist at the family-owned City Drug in International Falls, where the card has been available for more than a year, said his customers aren’t seeing much savings.
“A few people are using it. But, in most cases, our cash price is the same as the NACO price, so people are kind of disappointed,” Anderson told the News Tribune. “It might be great in some places, but here, it’s saving people a few pennies, if anything at all. It’s not causing any harm. But there are other programs people can use that are better.”
The resolution adopted Tuesday includes a provision requiring the county to offer a Web link to any discount card available to local residents, not just the National Association of Counties card.
The plan was officially labeled a “pilot program,” to be revisited after a year to see whether 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 in Minnesota and Bayfield and Sawyer counties in Wisconsin.