The newest tool to fight coronavirus could be coming soon to your neighborhood retailer.
This month, Walgreens announced it will partner with Village MD to open primary care clinics in 500 to 700 stores over the next five years. The drug chain is joining the likes of Walmart, CVS and Amazon to bring retail health clinics to the masses.
By increasing the supply of care available to consumers, these new clinics will help lead to lower prices throughout the rest of the health care system. And by providing a convenient avenue for individuals to get care for relatively minor issues, they’ll preserve the capacity of legacy health care providers for those stricken with COVID-19 or more serious health problems.
Retail health clinics offer everything from general checkups and diagnostic tests to counseling and x-rays. But unlike other providers, retail clinics are typically transparent about their prices. For example, at Walmart Health’s clinic in Dallas, Georgia, an adult patient will pay just $30 for an annual checkup, $25 for a dental exam, and $45 for a routine vision exam.
The low prices that are standard at most retail clinics make them an especially good fit for the uninsured and underinsured. Walgreens plans to use a sliding scale to adjust prices for those without insurance coverage. Walmart believes that its offerings will be attractive to patients whose plans have high deductibles and out-of-pocket costs.
The growth of retail health clinics holds particular promise for underserved rural communities. The nearest doctor or hospital may be miles away. But virtually every rural area has a pharmacy or big-box retailer. Indeed, 90% of Americans live within 10 miles of a Walmart.
Rural Americans need better access to care. They’re generally older and in poorer health than those living in urban areas. They’re more likely to be unemployed or uninsured, and typically must travel long distances to receive care.
Village MD CEO Tim Barry said he hopes the convenience of the Walgreens clinics will lead to earlier intervention and more regular appointments. Catching minor health problems before they develop into major ones is good not just for patients’ health, but for their wallet.
Hospital stays are expensive. HealthCare.gov pegs the cost of the average three-day visit at around $30,000. Even with insurance, the average patient can be on the hook for several thousand dollars.
Keeping people out of the hospital is particularly important in rural areas, which may have limited capacity and resources. That capacity is being put to the test during the ongoing pandemic. Every preventable hospital stay that is indeed prevented is a victory in the fight against COVID-19.
Retail health clinics are poised to address the very real demand among consumers, especially those in rural areas, for affordable, convenient health care. In so doing, they’ll unleash the kind of consumerism in the market for primary care that has led to lower prices and better quality in every other sector of our economy. A trip to the doctor should be as easy as picking up groceries.
Sally C. Pipes is president, CEO and Thomas W. Smith Fellow in Health Care Policy at the Pacific Research Institute. Her latest book is ”False Premise, False Promise: The Disastrous Reality of Medicare for All” (Encounter 2020). Follow her on Twitter @sallypipes.