As consolidation marches ahead in the healthfield, the call for stronger anti-trust reviews ofpotential merger is heightening.

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The latest: Walgreens’ proposed purchase of mega-rival Rite Aid.Driven in large measure by the desire to combine the two retailers’pharmacy operations, the merger has drawn considerable attentionfrom those concerned about escalating prescription drug costs.

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On the surface, the deal would seem to be a great one for allshareholders involved. Walgreens is performing well from a P&Lstandpoint, having just concluded a very profitable quarter andfiscal year. The Street seems to support the move: Rite Aid’sstock, which had been nearly dead, has peaked of late, andWalgreens has traded in a historically strong range.

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Apart from questions about how many stores would have to be shedand how long the Rite Aid brand would survive, analysts areweighing in on a larger issue: Such a merger would create not justa larger drug chain, but a new health care provider withconsiderable purchasing clout in the pharmaceuticalsmarketplace.

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Walgreens officials have already hinted at the potential savingsin prescription drug costs themerger could produce. But those savings would drop to Walgreens —and not necessarily to the end consumer. Further, merger observershave noted that insurers and benefits managers have beenpressuring pharmacies to cap or reduce drug costs through suchtactics as lower reimbursements. This combination of the second andthird largest drug chains (behind CVS) could shift the balance ofpower on that cost control effort, experts suggest.

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Both parties have agreed to the merger, which won’t get finalapproval from the feds until sometime next year.

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