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Another Walmart Health comes to Georgia

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CALHOUN, Ga. — Walmart has deepened its involvement in primary care with the opening of a second Walmart Health center. The clinic, which opened here last month in a newly remodeled Supercenter, provides primary and urgent care, labs, X-rays and mental health counseling as well as dental, optical and hearing services. Patients can schedule appointments online at the website. Operating hours are Monday through Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

The concept represents an opportunity for Walmart executives to apply business tactics that made the Supercenter a cornerstone of the retailer’s global success to a U.S. health care system plagued by high costs, limited access and uneven results.

“We think we can make an impactful difference in affordability, convenience and, most importantly, accessibility for the Calhoun community,” said Sean Slovenski, senior vice president and president of health and wellness at Walmart U.S.

The first Walmart Health center opened in Dallas, Ga., in ­September.

Walmart expects the centers will fill a gap in patient care in the communities by providing services beyond the diagnostic tests and immunizations that characterize much of the work performed at retail clinics, including the Care Clinics that Wal­mart introduced in 2014 in Georgia, South Carolina and Texas.

“This is not retail health care,” Slovenski said during a recent tour of the new facility. “We deliberately decided that we weren’t going to be in retail health care, because it has a limitation of services, which carries a certain connotation. We’re in the health care business. That means basing what we do on the needs of the communities where we have stores. If you’re in health care, you do what the community requires, versus retail health care, which has always been about fast, rapid, quick and trying to build volume into the store.”

The newest Walmart Health center is housed in an 8,000-square-foot addition to the Supercenter. In addition to accessing health care, customers can obtain help sorting through insurance and other payment options and take advantage of classes (many of them offered in conjunction with Tivity Health) on such subjects as diabetes education, nutrition, prenatal care and various types of exercise. Associates in two new roles — Walmart Care Host and Community Health Worker — assist customers in identifying the Walmart Health services that are right for their needs and can identify relevant local health-related resources.

Walmart envisions the centers as front doors to community health care, with the ability to funnel patients who need higher levels of treatment to the appropriate channels. For instance, during the week prior to opening to the public, when the Calhoun health center served only Wal­mart associates and their family members, two individuals — one who was severely anemic, another who had an irregular electrocardiograph — were immediately sent to the hospital.

The center’s prices are 30% to 50% lower than what patients would pay at physician’s office, Wal­­mart said. A primary care office visit costs $40, and annual checkups cost $30 for adult patients and $20 for children. Mental health counseling and routine vision exams cost $45 and dental exams with X-rays start at $25.

Walmart expects the price listings and extended hours will be particularly beneficial to low-income and uninsured patients, allowing the centers to create an entirely new health care market.

“What we’re doing is analogous to the business model for our Supercenters,” Slovenski noted. “It’s a one-stop shop. The variety of product, the convenience and the price points make the Supercenter format work. We’ve applied those ideas here, and the community response has been great.”

The Calhoun Supercenter has gone through a remodel that affords a whole new look and experience for shoppers. The inclusion of the Vision Center and pharmacy concepts aim to drive an enhanced patient experience.

The pharmacy was designed with the customer in mind, integrating feedback from thousands of shoppers to put convenience, simplicity and elevated service at the forefront in the redesigned space, according to company ­officials.

Walmart said it has created a Vision Center experience designed around the customer that is convenient, comfortable and affordable, featuring multiple service areas so customers can decide how and where they want to receive service.

“We are looking forward to reintroducing our store to the community with a fresh look,” said Michael Boling, Calhoun Walmart store manager. “Our store is committed to be a center of well-being in the community through our assortment of organic products and groceries and health and wellness offerings at everyday-low prices, and we are excited Walmart Health just opened to offer health care services to our customers.”

Calhoun has a need for what Walmart Health promises to deliver. Like many rural areas throughout America, the town and surrounding Gordon County, which together have a population of some 60,000, are medically underserved. Residents here sometimes have to wait weeks to see a doctor. The company has set out to change that.

“We’re going where we’re needed,” noted Amber Bynum, senior director of operations for the Walmart Health division. “We use a very complex algorithm to assess communities and determine where to open. We feel like Calhoun is a great fit for what we’re trying to do.”

The low-cost model that’s emerging will enable Walmart to achieve its “No. 1 goal, which is taking care of patients,” Bynum said. “We looked at everything that Mr. Sam [Walton] built Walmart on, and used the same principles to build Walmart Health.”

Having multiple practices under one roof should help Walmart hold down health care prices, Slovenski explained. “And then Walmart is able to remove some of the administrative burden, which also drops the costs down. It’s a little tweak here, and a reduced cost there. Break any of that apart and it doesn’t work.”

In bypassing the middleman, the health centers are borrowing from another foundation of the Supercenter model, Slovenski said.

“We’re disintermediating the insurers and the PBMs. It’s very similar to what Walmart does when they get rid of the middleman. They go directly to the manufacturer or become the manufacturer. Same thing here,” he said. “Because we offer cash pricing, you can pay $40 for a doctor visit or we can run it through your insurance if you want us to, but that way it’s going to cost you $80 because it’s more expensive for us to do it that way. What we’re doing is going to change the way that people look at the insurers that now control the market.”

Services are provided by an array of medical professionals, including physicians, nurse practitioners, dentists, optometrists and behavioral health specialists, who see people during appointments that range from 15 minutes to an hour or more, depending on the complexity of the patient’s condition. To help staff the centers, Walmart has forged partnerships with local health care professionals.

The emergence of Walmart Health could impact where health care professionals choose to practice.

“Honestly, we’re going to have a revolution with the practitioners,” predicted Slovenski, “because when you talk to doctors and dentists and nurses and nurse practitioners, they’re fairly unhappy because they’ve become a cog in the machine. Today’s system is all about volume and repetition to make enough money to sustain a private practice. As a result, they get burned out pretty easily. Because we take a holistic approach and everything is integrated at Walmart Health, it goes back to why people became health care professionals in the first place, which is to deliver care to patients. If you really believe that your employees are your most important asset, the happier they are, the better your service is and the better your results are.”

The success of the new venture could mean more competition for local providers who offer similar care at higher prices. But industry experts have yet to come to a consensus on the ultimate impact Walmart Health clinics will have on the health care sector.

“When health systems step back and realize that we can cut the wait time to see a primary care physician by two-thirds or more, and that a certain percentage of those patients are going to need care by specialists or hospitalization, they welcome our presence,” noted Slovenski.

Walmart executives are optimistic that the early positive results at Walmart Health will be sustained and the model might upend the status quo.