Wal-Mart envisions larger role in health care

6/23/2008

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. —As election-year politics begin to heat up, Wal-Mart is intent on playing a more prominent role in shaping the nation’s public policy regarding health care and demonstrating how the company’s size makes it uniquely qualified to have an impact.

During the company’s annual meeting of shareholders held earlier this month, and an all-day media conference that preceded it, senior executives repeatedly spoke of Wal-Mart’s mission to save customers money so they can live better. And it was in that context that Wal-Mart chairman Rob Walton, president and chief executive officer Lee Scott and president of the health and wellness division Dr. John Agwunobi, all made reference to WalMart’s generic drug pricing initiatives.

“We are extremely proud of the work we are doing in pharmacy,” Agwunobi said as he stood in front of the pharmacy at a Wal-Mart supercenter here.

To a large extent, Wal-Mart used the event and to cast itself as the savior of hard-working American families bearing the brunt of rising energy prices and food inflation. According to Scott, Wal-Mart’s prices on everyday needs help customers cope with high gas prices. However, it is Wal-Mart’s efforts in the world of generic drugs where Scott asserted the company is making the biggest difference.

Wal-Mart executives say it has saved customers more than $1.1 billion since the $4 generic drug program went into effect in fall 2006.

“By saving people money on their prescription drugs, we have changed the pharmaceutical industry and the delivery of health care forever,” Scott said. “We have helped millions of people live better, healthier and fuller lives. And we have begun to play a meaningful role in the healthcare debate.”

It is a role likely to grow larger, as Wal-Mart relies on pricing initiatives as a means to grow its business, while simultaneously positioning itself as an agent of change in the healthcare system. While that assertion can be disputed by critics, it provides Wal-Mart with a solid story to share with lawmakers, who, up until recently, saw Wal-Mart in a negative light.

“Regardless of who wins the election in November, and what party they are from, we stand ready to work with the next president and the next Congress,” Scott said. “We believe we can be an effective partner.”

Wal-Mart’s ability to get things done has improved during the past year as the it has galvanized around the philosophy of “save money, live better.” As Scott said, the expression is not simply a marketing slogan. And even though it was adopted just last fall by Wal-Mart’s new advertising agency, company chairman Rob Walton sought to put its use in historical context.

Referring to a presentation in 1992 when his father, and Wal-Mart founder, Sam Walton received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from George H. W. Bush, he said, “Dad said, ‘if we could continue to work together, we’d give the world an opportunity to see what it was like to save and to have a better life.’”

Now, Walton and Scott contend Wal-Mart can use its size to be a force for positive change in the world. One of those changes is sure to be the development of additional programs that impact the costs of healthcare products and services.

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