The program, which started this week, is primarily aimed at drugs for childhood illnesses. Included are amoxicillin, cephalexin, SMX-TMP, ciprofloxacin, penicillin VK, ampicillin, and erythromycin.
The no-strings program, which will continue indefinitely, comes on the heels of a Wal-Mart Stores Inc. decision to offer certain generic prescription drugs for $4. Later, Target Corp. decided to do the same.
President Mark Murray of the privately owned Meijer acknowledged that drug discount programs by other companies "made this an issue that goes on the A pile."
But, he added: "This is Meijer's program. Obviously we're not copying."
Anyone is eligible for the give-away, whether insured or uninsured, the company said. No purchase is necessary, and there are no forms to fill out. It covers up to a 14-day supply of the drug.
Meijer will give away seven antibiotics commonly prescribed to children. These account for 70 percent of antibiotic prescriptions the stores typically fill. Murray wouldn't say what the program will cost the chain, or how much of its revenues come from the pharmacies.
"Holy moly!" said Mike Calabrese, a pharmacist and owner of Erie Drug in Toledo, Ohio. "They think that little of what these drugs are, that they're using those as loss leaders to get you into the store? It just kind of cheapens the whole thing."
He sees a real risk as people "chase whoever has this thing free one day or for four bucks the next."
It's possible a person could fill prescriptions at a number of different places, so that no pharmacist will be aware when a patient is taking a drug that will interact with a new prescription.
"There's a real potential for negative health outcomes," Calabrese said.
Two physicians said they don't expect the free antibiotic program to increase the number of antibiotic prescriptions doctors are writing. Experts say the over-prescribing of antibiotics helps push some bacteria to develop resistance to certain drugs.
"There is no doubt that all doctors, including myself, over prescribe antibiotics because they're seen as cheap insurance," said Dr. Haig Donabedian, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Toledo college of medicine.
Free drugs "shouldn't necessarily change the practice of the physician in any way," said Dr. David Krol, chairman of pediatrics at UT. "Ideally, a pediatrician practicing evidence-based medicine is not going to prescribe an antibiotic simply because a patient could get it for free."
The free drugs typically are for strep throat and bronchitis, not for the flu or other viral ailments.
Instead, the Meijer program could make drugs more accessible for families with limited incomes.
"I think it's a wonderful program for families who can't afford medications," Dr. Krol said.