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Despite strong 4Q, Walmart cuts jobs, realigns some depts.

BY Mike Troy

BENTONVILLE, Ark. —A reputation for low prices, increasingly budget-conscious consumers and a slew of operational and merchandising improvements propelled Walmart’s U.S. business to new heights last year and promise to do the same again this year.

The company last month reported that the U.S. stores division grew sales by 6% in the fourth quarter to $71.5 billion and by 6.8% to $256 billion for the year. Operating profits for the quarter increased 2.2% to $5.4 billion and for the year increased 7.1% to $18.7 billion.

“Walmart U.S. had an extraordinary year,” president and CEO Mike Duke said in a recorded message on Feb. 17. “Our stores have differentiated themselves even more this year from others in the marketplace with our strong value messaging in every merchandise category. The U.S. consumer trusts Walmart more than ever because we deliver on what we promise—we save them money,” said Duke, who became president and CEO on Feb. 1, following the retirement of former president and CEO Lee Scott.

According to Duke, the company’s strong performance relative to competitors was the result of momentum built during a very tough economy, and going forward, Walmart will take what worked and work hard at doing it even better.

“We recognize the times in which we’re operating, and these times call for leadership and flexibility to adapt to the marketplace,” Duke said.

The company demonstrated its flexibility and commitment to maintaining a low-cost structure one week prior to the release of fourth-quarter results when Duke announced plans to eliminate 700 to 800 jobs from the company’s Bentonville, Ark., workforce of roughly 14,000 people. While Walmart’s job cuts were far less than the 7,000 positions eliminated at Macy’s and Home Depot, and also fewer on a percentage basis than the 600 positions Target cut at is headquarters, the revelation was stunning because throughout 2008, and even in the most recent announcement, a recurring theme in Walmart’s commentary has been how well-positioned the company is in the current economic climate.

Even so, Duke noted in an e-mail distributed to employees that the cuts were necessary to align staffing and organizational structures to increase operational efficiencies, support strategic growth plans and reduce overall costs.

“Some of these changes will involve reductions in home office positions, while others will create additional management jobs elsewhere. And, as part of our overall store growth plan, we will continue to add thousands of jobs in our stores and clubs this year,” Duke said in the e-mail.

From a pharmacy perspective, one of the more important developments, explained Walmart vice chairman Eduardo Castro-Wright, who is responsible for the U.S. stores division, involves a change to the health-and-wellness group.

“The health-and-wellness team integrated the three businesses of pharmacy, optical and clinics into a total health-and-wellness group. This move also aligns the organization to match the field operations teams,” Castro-Wright said.

Although the new home office structure likely is to be disruptive in the near term, over time a unified organization focused on health-and-wellness business makes more sense than three distinct business units, each with its own support staff. The change has been a long time in the making and comes as Walmart has emerged as a more dominant force in the healthcare world.

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Obama may overturn Bush’s ‘conscience’ rules

BY Alaric DeArment

NEW YORK The Obama Administration may overturn the Bush Administration’s “conscience” rules that allow healthcare workers to invoke religious beliefs to deny certain services such as birth control, according to published reports.

The Los Angeles Times reported that Barack Obama may roll back the provisions, which allow pharmacists to refuse to prescribe birth control pills on account of personal religious beliefs. 

Seven states have also filed lawsuits to challenge the rule, the newspaper reported.

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Clear up patient medication guidelines, independent pharmacy group urges FDA

BY Jim Frederick

ALEXANDRIA, Va. The National Community Pharmacists Association wants the government to give patients a clearer, more concise set of guidelines on how to take their medications, the effects those drugs have and the risks and benefits they carry.

The independent pharmacy organization yesterday urged the Food and Drug Administration’s Risk Communication Advisory Committee to push for a change in the current system of overlapping instructions that go to patients along with their prescriptions. In testimony before the committee, NCPA asked the agency to develop criteria for a guidance that would describe “a single, patient-friendly, written prescription information sheet to eventually replace the multiple written documents that patients can currently receive from their pharmacists with a particular prescription.

Under current practices, those documents can include  Medication Guides, Patient Package Inserts [PPIs] and Consumer Medication Information [CMI]. Too often, said NCPA’s director of public policy, Tony Lee, patients discard the CMI and never read it — sometimes even throwing it away before they leave the pharmacy.

“While we recognize that the FDA has worked hard to try and improve these medication documents, the problem needs to be addressed in a fundamentally different way that combines useful written information with the personal relationships between the pharmacists and patients,” Lee told the FDA advisory panel.

“It is time for a comprehensive solution to this written prescription information issue,” added John Coster, NCPA’s senior VP of government affairs. “Any FDA effort to make CMI more useful for the patient should be accompanied by a broader assessment of the usefulness and purpose of the other information leaflets that pharmacist may be required to provide. We look forward to working with the agency and patient groups to meet this goal.”

Last summer, NCPA joined other pharmacy provider groups to file a “One Document” citizens’ petition with the FDA. The Risk Advisory Committee was convened specifically to address how to make CMI leaflets more useful for the patient, the group noted.

“These leaflets are voluntarily provided by the pharmacist, but the information contained in these leaflets often duplicates information in other written leaflets,” NCPA stated.

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