Health care costs in the United States are not known for dry spells in profits.
Look no further than the $3.65 trillion spent in 2018. Unlike other industries where people can bargain about who has the best deal and plan out their shopping list, health care doesn’t work that way. The price is always the price—dependent on the person’s prior health background and the place in which health care was received. But retailers are trying to make themselves the middleman in preventative care and take out all the guessing games.
The retail move to health care
CVS has moved forward with 50 HealthHub locations and plans to update approximately 600 more stores with its health-focused format by 2021. These CVS HealthHubs focus on chronic conditions (high blood pressure, high cholesterol, sleep apnea, Type 2 diabetes); common illness treatments; and wellness rooms for everything from nutrition seminars to navigating health insurance plans and costs.
Walmart is also expanding its healthcare options. Customers may have previously visited their Vision Centers for prescription eyewear, but now they’re helping people care for the rest of their bodies, too. In September 2019, Walmart opened its first-ever Walmart Health center in Dallas, Georgia. Walmart Health comes equipped for primary care, labs, X-ray and EKG machines, counseling, and hearing and community health education.
And staying on brand with Walmart’s low pricing, the goal is to make these primary and urgent care services transparent and at low prices. According to their official site, annual checkups are $20, lab tests are $10 and dental cleaning for adults is $25 no matter what their insurance policies are.
Of course, Walgreens is no stranger to the health care industry either. With approximately 9,277 drug stores in all 50 states (as of August 2019), the retailer has filled 1.2 billion prescriptions (including immunizations) on a 30-day adjusted basis in fiscal 2019 alone. In addition to employing more than 230K people, it has also recruited more than 88,000 healthcare service providers, including pharmacists, pharmacy technicians, nurse practitioners and other health-related professionals.
Additionally, Walgreens is developing 30 small-format pharmacies. These facilities will prioritize health and wellness in each location’s front end.
How marrying retail and health care helps the insured
Finding a retail store that gives flu shots or fills prescriptions has been an option for decades. And pharmacies have been around since the 1800s. But the retail industry is partnering with the health care industry in a much larger way, potentially becoming a major competitor to traditional hospitals. But why? Americans clearly need far more assistance than the local pharmacy to get a handle on both preventative and ongoing care. However, they also need to be able to afford it.
“The issues of health care affordability and accessibility are two of the greatest and most prevalent concerns in our country today,” said Sean Slovenski, senior vice president and president of health and wellness at Walmart, in an official statement. “Helping families save money so they can live better is at the heart of Walmart’s business, and we have bold ambitions to partner with great providers and find solutions to deliver quality health services at low, transparent pricing to our customers in a way that is convenient for them, making ‘live better’ the norm.”
Unfortunately “the norm” in American health is troubling. Six in 10 adults in the United States have a chronic disease. Even more alarming, four in 10 adults in the United States have two or more chronic diseases, according to the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (NCCDPHP). Some key lifestyle changes that can voluntarily be changed are tobacco use, poor nutrition, lack of physical activity and excessive alcohol use.
But the chronic diseases that are commonly found require long-term and expensive medical help. The most common ones are Alzheimer’s, cancer, chronic kidney disease, chronic lung disease, diabetes, heart disease and strokes. And while the obvious place for getting treatment would be through health insurance, in 2017, 8.8 percent of people (28.5 million) still did not have it at any point during the year. These alarming results were also consistent with 2016, when 28.1 million people were uninsured. On the upside, the number of people with health insurance coverage increased by 2.3 million with a total of approximately 294.6 million.
Mysterious pricing and access to one’s local primary care physician matter, too. For uncontrollable reasons, an insured person can be bounced from one hospital to the next, simply because an insurance company has decided their medical procedures are less expensive at another hospital. But “cheaper” doesn’t make these places easier for traveling. According to CVS HealthHub, the stores were “developed to help people manage chronic conditions more conveniently and affordably by improving the overall patient experience and featuring a wide array of health and wellness products, clinical services and expertise.”
“We are delivering real change to the health care system,” said Alan Lotvin, M.D., chief transformation officer for CVS Health, in a statement. “Through HealthHUBs, consumers are at the center of an unmatched retail health experience. The HealthHUB products and services are designed specifically with the consumer’s health needs, challenges, and goals in mind, so that they can easily receive coordinated, personalized care in a familiar, neighborhood location.”
Why health care billing transparency may help retailers
Making health care options more locally convenient for Americans is important. But knowing exactly the services they’re getting and what they cost could be what makes retailers stand out so much more. If retail companies treat health care costs the way they treat retail stores, this could eliminate a lot of confusion.
Americans already struggle to meet premium payments, according to financial expert company The Balance. In 2018, the average insured spent $4,968 on health care. And out-of-pocket health insurance spending has consistently increased, with the average cost boosted more than 50 percent from $435 to $662.
Too often insured people don’t know what their end payments will be until after bills go through underwriting. Something as necessary as an ambulance transport or emergency trip visit can make those costs skyrocket. And getting the same treatment at different locations—doctor’s offices, urgent care centers, emergency room—could be a different price than at a retail clinic. And retail clinics have largely provided less expensive rates than the other three options. So if people can get locally based health care that is affordable, convenient and of quality, the retail industry will see some “healthy” winning results.