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Wal Mart's Pharma-Power?

The Denver Post yesterday lauded Wal Mart for abandoning its principles in the face of regulation and legislation, calling it a step in the company's evolution towards "good corporate citizen." The paper was particularly concerned with Wal Mart's decision to start carrying the Plan B emergency contraception pill, subject to the local pharmacist's discretion:

With its 3,700 pharmacies, Wal-Mart's decision not to stock Plan B was a huge setback for women's health. Wal-Mart was the only major chain that had refused to sell the drug, known as the morning-after pill. If taken within 72 hours of intercourse, the pill can prevent pregnancies.

Wal-Mart opened the door but it hasn't fully committed itself. The company is still allowing pharmacists who object to Plan B to refer customers to another pharmacist - or another pharmacy. It's a short-sighted and troubling policy, and Wal-Mart needs to think about the women who may not have other pharmacies nearby. In many small rural communities, Wal-Mart has edged out the smaller mom-and-pop stores and pharmacies.

Emphasis added. It seems to me that in their editorial zeal to appropriate someone else's cash flow, shelf space, inventory, morals, and ethics, the Post has made the mistake of including a falsifiable (or verifiable) claim; that the claim that Wal-Mart's policy is a "huge setback" relies almost entirely on the fact (or non) that Wal-Mart's pharmacy is the only choice for many women for miles around.

So I decided to test the thesis. There are two rural areas in Colorado: the plains and the mountains. First, I looked for all Wal-Marts with pharmacies within 100 miles (the maximum allowable distance on the Wal-Mart website) of Hugo, a city centrally located on Colorado's plains. The only stores not located on I-25 in a major city are:

La Junta, CO 81050
Fort Morgan, CO 80701
Lamar, CO 81052

I extended the search to the rest of the plains, and found an addition store in Sterling, and two more in Trinidad. Since Trinidad is the sex-change capital of North America, my guess is that Wal-Mart isn't the only pharmacy in town.

None of these towns is tiny, although all are small. Still, just to be fair, I searched DexOnline for Pharmacies in or near (within 25 miles) of each of these four towns. I chose 25 miles because it's a trip that could be made during lunch hour or after work without too much inconvenience. The score:

Lajunta - 9
Fort Morgan - 5
Lamar - 3
Sterling - 2

In none of these places, did Wal-Mart have a 24-hour pharmacy. One of the two in Sterling was. Also, there were other pharmacies in more remote rural towns, where Wal Mart had no presence, so it's not like people in those places had to drive to Sterling, only to discover it monopolized by Wal Mart and bereft of Plan B.

On the Western Slope, I found the following Wal-Marts not in major cities or major destinations (again, if you're in Avon, you're serving Vail, and again, my guess is that the number of broken legs justifies more than one Wal-Mart Pharmacy in town):

Alamosa, CO 81101
Canon City, CO 81212
Cortez, CO 81321
Delta, CO 81416
Durango, CO 81303
Frisco, CO 80443
Glenwood Springs, CO 81601
Gunnison, CO 81230
Montrose, CO 81401
Rifle, CO 81650
Salida, CO 81201
Steamboat Springs, CO 80477

And the Pharmascore:

Alamosa - 8
Canon City - 4
Cortez - 2
Delta - 4 (many in small towns nearby)
Durango - 5
Frisco - 8
Glenwood Springs - 4
Gunnison - 1
Montrose - 3
Rifle - 2
Salida - 5
Steamboat Springs - 2

In this case, there is one town without another advertised pharmacy - Cortez - but without further research, it's impossible to tell if Wal-Mart displaced, replaced, or had nothing to do with whatever pharmacy may have been there before.

It is true that in a couple of small towns, the only other competing pharmacies are supermarket chains, but what this has to do with the Post's argument is beyond understanding. If anything, the larger chains are more likely to carry this sort of thing as policy, whereas a small-town druggist might shy away from it, which is precisely the Post's complaint about Wal-Mart's policy.

Conclusion - at least in Colorado, the Post, having declared Wal-Mart guilty, is itself guilty of assuming facts not in evidence.

UPDATE: A Google search on "Pharmacy" and "Cortez" revealed that both City Market and Safeway had pharmacies in town, and that, as of December 15 of last year, Walgreen's had gotten approval to build a store there. The numbers have been updated to reflect these facts. As a result, Wal-Mart's monopoly in rural Colorado disappears entirely.

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