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Stater Bros. starts free prescription-antibiotics program

Albertsons plans to match the offer. Free drugs include ciprofloxacin, doxycycline, penicillin and bactrim. The move is part of Southern California grocery chains' battle for customers, analysts say.

October 01, 2009|Jerry Hirsch

Southern California's supermarket price war found a new front Wednesday when Stater Bros. started filling a selection of antibiotic prescriptions for free.

Albertsons said that it would match the offer at the Albertsons Sav-on Pharmacies in its stores but that customers would have to ask for the deal. Vons said it had no plans to follow Stater Bros. Ralphs also said it would not match the offer but might introduce a similar program at a later date.

Analysts said the move was part of a recession-fueled battle for customers among the large grocery chains. Stater Bros., Ralphs Grocery Co., Vons and Albertsons all have steadily lowered prices and launched promotions in recent months to keep customers coming through their doors.

"Southern California has some pretty good price competition going on now," said Andrew Wolf, an analyst at BB&T Capital Markets in Richmond, Va.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, October 02, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 2 inches; 55 words Type of Material: Correction
Prescription giveaway: An article in Business on Thursday about supermarkets that are filling some antibiotic prescriptions free of charge said that Stater Bros. would not charge a co-payment to people with prescription coverage but would bill their insurance companies for reimbursement. The supermarket chain corrected itself Thursday, saying it would not seek reimbursement from insurers.

Like other specials, Stater Bros' prescription giveaway "is all about getting people into the store," Wolf said.

Still, health advocates praised the promotion.

"It highlights how we need meaningful healthcare reform so that we would not need this type of thing," said Daniel Zingale, a senior vice president for California Endowment and former top healthcare advisor to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Although free antibiotics will be especially helpful to children and others with transitory, bacterial diseases such as ear and sinus infections, it will be of little help to uninsured Californians with diabetes, cardiovascular illness and other chronic diseases that require expensive maintenance drugs, he said. About 6 million Californians go without health insurance, Zingale said.

The Stater Bros. offer covers a two-week supply of 38 different doses of eight antibiotics, including generic versions of often-prescribed pharmaceuticals such as ciprofloxacin, doxycycline, penicillin and bactrim. Refills are also free.

Typically, 24 of the doses are available for $4 each at most mass retailer and supermarket pharmacies, including Stater Bros., but more than a third of the 38 are more expensive.

For example, Stater Bros. previously charged $63.54 for a two-week supply of the 750-mg dose of antibiotic ciprofloxacin, said John Acosta, Stater Bros.' vice president of pharmacy. It is now free, he said.

The San Bernardino-based supermarket chain targeted the program at people without medical insurance but said it would also provide the drugs for no co-payment to people with prescription coverage. However, it will still bill their insurance carriers for whatever reimbursement it can collect.

The antibiotics will be available only at the 28 Stater Bros. locations in Southern California with pharmacies. The chain has 167 stores in the region.

Stater Bros., typically one of the region's lower-priced chains, has seen its slice of L.A. and Orange counties' grocery market shrink slightly in recent months as other chains have gotten more price competitive.

Its market share dropped slightly to just over 6% in the second quarter, according to Shelby Report, a research firm. Albertsons took a much greater hit, falling by almost a third of a percentage point to just over 12%. Vons' market share was unchanged at 14.8%.

Ralphs, which started the price-cutting war last year and revamped its frequent-customer program to target the goods that people are most likely to buy, has been the big winner so far. It has gained almost a full percentage point and now has just over 19% of Los Angeles and Orange counties' grocery market.

Jack Brown, chief executive of Stater Bros., said he believed that his store's promotion would help people at a time when many are short of cash. But he said there was an even better deal out there for people concerned about falling ill.

"The best antibiotic is washing your hands frequently," he said. "That's what we are telling our employees."

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jerry.hirsch@latimes.com

twitter.com/LATimesJerry

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