Can Walmart help to solve the U.S. healthcare-access crisis?

August 8, 2014, 5:31 PM UTC
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More than 7 million Americans can wave around their shiny new insurance cards thanks to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), but insurance access isn’t solving an even more pressing problem: The U.S. is still facing a healthcare-access crisis.

Nearly 20% of Americans live in areas without sufficient access to primary care doctors, according to the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration. The shortage is particularly acute in rural areas, where residents are more likely to suffer from diabetes, cancer and heart problems, according to a study by UnitedHealth. On top of mounting maladies, there are only 65 primary care doctors per 100,000 rural Americans, a fraction of the average 105 doctors per 100,000 urban residents.

Mediocre healthcare access is plaguing rural communities across the U.S.Fortune


The demand placed on these doctors will only continue to grow. More than 8 million more rural patients are expected to join Medicaid rolls by 2019, a product of the ACA, said UnitedHealth.

But there could be a solution: Wal-Mart.

The nation’s largest retailer has opened six primary care locations in South Carolina and Texas and has plans to open another six by the end of the year. Unlike existing urgent care centers at CVS (CVS) or Walgreens (WAG) stores, the Wal-Mart clinics are billing themselves as primary medical providers.

Retail, or corporate, clinics run by the likes of CVS or Walgreens are spread over 37 states, but only about 12% of those health centers are located in rural areas.

Walmart (WM) has a vast rural network of stores, essentially overlapping the patchwork of rural communities that are struggling to get the healthcare they need. The retailer has the capability to expand its medical services rapidly in far-flung areas to take advantage of the boom in patients resulting from the ACA.

Barnett said the new clinic’s are part of Walmart’s ongoing initiative to expand access and reduce prices for everyday customers–and this includes healthcare.

“We have been in health and wellness for many many years, from our pharmacies to urgent care,” said Walmart spokeswoman Deisha Galberth Barnett. “We have a strong history in innovating in the health and wellness industry.”

Also, unlike the traditional retail clinics that could treat a limited list of ailments, such as the flu, or a sinus infection, Walmart’s new primary care locations offer customers treatment for common, often chronic, issues.

Rural residents will have the benefit of a doctor in the neighborhood — and at Walmart’s low prices. Patients are charged $40 a visit, while employees and dependents who are covered under Walmart’s insurance pay $4 a visit. The clinics accept Medicare and are starting to enroll some locations in Medicaid, but do not yet accept third-party insurance.

The issue with Walmart’s new model, however, is that treating chronic, primary care issues is more complicated than traditional maladies treated at urgent care clinics.

Walmart’s clinics are partnering with QuadMed to staff their offices with nurse practitioners and physician assistants, who are fully qualified to diagnose illnesses and write prescriptions, but don’t have the full training of a medical doctor.

Each location will have a supervisory physician, although they will not actually treat patients.

Walmart, along with the wider medical and insurance community, will pay close attention to how these first dozen primary care clinics perform, both medically and financially. If they end up being successful, Walmart says it’s ready to open even more.

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