Selling snake oil

I stopped at the local pharmacy to pick up a prescription earlier this week. After the pharmacist/owner carefully educated me about the use of the medicine, I asked him about Measure 7 on this fall’s ballot. The measure would abolish North Dakota’s law requiring that pharmacies in the state be majority owned by a licensed pharmacist. We are the only state in the union with such a law. Apparently large companies like Walmart, Target and Walgreens would like to see that changed. If you think you’ve heard all of this before, you have. I wrote an article very similar to this in 2008 and several unsuccessful attempts have been made to initiate measures and to introduce legislation have been made since.

Obviously, our local pharmacist supports the law as it is. The law was designed to encourage local professional ownership. For small towns that is a good thing. Being able to get a prescription filled without having to drive 120 miles or more may sometimes be more than a convenience. Having a drug store down the street could make a difference in how quickly one gets well.

I asked the pharmacist how WalMart could fill prescriptions for four dollars. Mr. Lutman explained that many of the drugs on the WalMart list of qualifying pharmaceuticals were things not often prescribed, were duplicates of the same drug made by different manufacturers or were drugs meant to treat rare and unusual conditions. Only a small number of commonly recommended drugs are really available for four dollars. The fine print in the WalMart cheap prescription promotion also restricts these prices to cash customers. Insurance companies are billed much higher prices and if your policy includes a co-pay, you also will pay a higher price.

Proponents of Measure 7 say that our current law makes us all pay higher prices for the medicines we need. They use an outdated and misleading study to prove their point. According to the National Association of Chain Drug Stores own study, North Dakotans currently pay 12 percent less for prescriptions than the national average and 34 percent less than our neighbors in Minnesota.

What benefit will changing our law have for consumers? It will not increase competition. Short-term undercutting of prices by huge corporations will drive independent owners out of business and result in a decrease in competition. In the same way as major corporations pulled department stores, grocery stores and implement dealers out of small towns because small enterprises did not generate high enough profits, small town and local drug stores owned by big chains will also not be profitable enough.

We regulate all kinds of business. We limit corporate and nonprofit ownership of land. We have rules about how cooperatives are run. For years our state’s ownership of a mill and elevator and bank were termed “archaic” and “out-of-date.”  When the world faced the biggest economic downturn since the 1930s, our state barely stumbled because we had not adopted all the current practices in banking.  Now these profitable and stable businesses are cited as examples of wisdom and forethought. While we may be the only state with such a law, we are not the only place in the world. Many countries in the world, especially those in Europe, also have similar laws. Those countries also have far lower drug costs than the US.

Our pharmacy law works. Our local drug store offers services WalMart will never provide unless they create a large enough profit for the Walton family. When all the competition from independently owned pharmacies have been destroyed, will you be better off? WalMart’s pharmacy will not deliver prescriptions to your home free. Their hired pharmacist will not take the time our local druggist takes to make sure you understand how to take your medication. They will not take a check in payment nor will they call you if your elderly parent has a problem with a prescription. WalMart will not have a drug store in a town with fewer than 2000 people.

Prescription drugs can be very expensive. Everyone would like to save some money. Lets make sure, however, we are not being sold snake oil.

Copyright © 2014 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains

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