Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest retailer, has spent years trying to turn some of its millions of customers into patients, offering a simple menu of medical services that consumers can buy along with everything from a bag of chips to a lawn mower.
Now the store is in the throes of its most aggressive push yet to become a one-stop shopping destination for medical care.
The company has opened six primary care locations in South Carolina and Texas, with another six planned by the end of the year.
The clinics, it says, can offer a broader range of services, such as chronic disease management, than the 100 or so Wal-Mart acute care clinics across the country. Unlike CVS or Walgreens, which offer some similar services, or Costco, which offers eye care, Wal-Mart is marketing itself as a primary medical provider.
Like its competitors, Wal-Mart is looking to grab a bigger share of the billions of health care dollars being spent in the United States and benefit from the shifting delivery system that has resulted from the Affordable Care Act.
The Wal-Mart primary care clinics charge patients $40 a visit; employees at the company and their dependents who are covered under its own insurance pay $4 a visit. (Wal-Mart says that more than half of its 1.1 million employees currently receive health care through the company.) Though it accepts Medicare, it does not currently accept third-party insurance, although it is exploring the option, spokeswoman Danit Marquardt said, adding that it is starting to enroll some of its stores in Medicaid.
With its vast rural footprint, Wal-Mart is positioning its primary care clinics in areas where doctors are scarce and where medical care, with or without insurance, can be prohibitively expensive. If they succeed, the company said, it is prepared to open even more.
“If they’re rolling it out across the rural stores primarily, they’re actually filling an important gap in the health care ecosystem,” said Skip Snow, a health care analyst at Forrester Research.
But while experts agree that increased access to health care is a good thing, others say patients with chronic conditions need complex care that retail giants cannot provide. Diseases such as diabetes, for example, can result in complications that are not easy to manage.
“There’s not a role for retail clinics to take care of chronic, ongoing problems like that,” said Robert L. Wergin, the president-elect of the American Academy of Family Physicians. “It can provide a service, maybe an entryway into a system.”
Disease management is big business. Most of the $1.7 billion that Americans spend annually goes to handling chronic illnesses, said Matt Nemer, a health care analyst at Wells Fargo.
For Wal-Mart, that could mean a more regular stream of patients that helps increase foot traffic and business for Walmart’s pharmacies, which do accept insurance.
“To make it profitable, you need to make it have more than just a clinical encounter,” said Glenn Hammack, the founding president and chief executive of NuPhysicia, which closed the six clinics it briefly ran in Wal-Mart stores. “You also need to sell them prescriptions, a bag of chips, maybe a magazine while they’re waiting.”