To analysts: Walgreens investors will have something to be thankful for next year

NEW YORK — Walgreens took to the road the week before Thanksgiving to talk turkey with analysts on why Walgreens is a good bet going into 2012, even if the pharmacy won't be participating in the Express Scripts pharmacy network this coming year.

Walgreens EVP and CFO Wade Miquelon spoke to the number of initiatives that Walgreens is currently pursuing in an effort to become America’s first choice for health and daily living before two analyst conferences Wednesday. However, many of the analysts were more interested in how Walgreens plans to drive prescription growth in spite of its discontinuance in the Express Scripts pharmacy network.

The Express Scripts business represents 7% of Walgreens' total business and about 10% of its pharmacy business. Miquelon advised analysts modeling Walgreens' business to go ahead and exclude Express Scripts from their revenue forecasts because the two companies are still "miles and miles apart" in their negotiations.

Miquelon also was asked about Medco, and if the proposed Express Scripts/Medco merger is approved, what does that portend for Walgreens? While Miquelon declined to compare Medco to Express Scripts, "there's a big question mark — not only on an 'if' but [also] on a 'when,'" he said. And the longer that proposed merger takes, the more contractual opportunities will open for payers to sign on with another pharmacy benefit manager. "You'd be hard-pressed to find a large [Express Scripts] customer that doesn't want … to get out," Miquelon said. "No large customer is going to accept a narrow network [i.e., one without Walgreens] for insignificant or no savings."

But Miquelon isn't worried about walking away from Express Scripts. "I have never been more bullish of the [Walgreens pharmacy] business than I am now," he said. "Every large group that we've talked to — every single one — over time say they must have Walgreens in their network," Miquelon added, so eventually any prescriptions lost on Jan. 1 stands a strong chance of returning beginning Jan. 2.

Miquelon explained that Walgreens' hard stance against Express Scripts is based on two principles: fair reimbursement, both in terms of no reimbursements lower than acquisition costs and in terms of comparable to the industry, and fair treatment of all payers. It's not worth cutting a low-reimbursement deal with one pharmacy benefit manager if that cannot be replicated across the board, he explained. "This company is not going to compromise on this principle of holdng the line on fair reimbursements."

Before each of the calls was dominated by Express Scripts queries during the question-and-answer sessions, Miquelon provided the foundation for Walgreens business going into next year. "We have 40 million people per week coming into a Walgreens, whether it's for the pharmacy or the front end," Miquelon said. Walgreens boasts 1,600 24-hour stores, Miquelon said. "America lives close to Walgreens. ... Two-thirds live within 2 miles and 80% within 5," he said. But more importantly, Walgreens also is becoming ubiquitous to the customer with its pursuit of multichannel platforms. "We are transforming the drug store experience and what that [means] is to be the leader in health care and daily living."

To that end, Walgreens has targeted 1,000 locations for deeper fresh-food offerings in communities "where oftentimes people don't have transporation [and] they're 3 miles from the grocery store," Miquelon said. Walgreens also is "raising our game in beauty" with higher-end prestige offerings, he said. And the Chicago retailer is expanding its total healthcare positioning with the convenience of vaccinations available at all stores (6.4 million flu shots were administered last year, and 4.6 million this year-to-date), the test-market of a pharmacist serving as a healthcare concierge and the extension of its healthcare reach through Take Care Clinics both in-store and across worksites. "We are stepping out of the traditional drug store channel into something else," he said.

Miquelon presented at the Morgan Stanley Global Consumer Conference the morning of Nov. 16 and that afternoon at the Lazard Capital Markets 8th Annual Healthcare Conference.

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