Strong Medicine: Walmart Aims to Boost Its Health Care Services, Not Become a Major Health Care Provider

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It sure sounded like Walmart wanted to dominate yet another part of the U.S. economy when it sent out an RFI, or request for information — as NPR reported last week — laying out its plan to become “the largest provider of primary health-care services in the nation.”

But it turns out that the country’s largest retailer only wants to make more money by expanding its in-store consumer health-care offering — not dominate the industry.

Rebutting NPR’s report, Dr. John Agwunobi, SVP & President of Walmart U.S. Health & Wellness, issued this denial: “The RFI statement of intent is overwritten and incorrect. We are not building a national, integrated, low-cost primary care health care platform.”

Al Norman calls it a corporate “Oops.” Maybe it was just a case of muscle memory underlying Walmart’s ambitions, which always tend toward being the world’s biggest (or perceived as such). Just recently came word, for instance, that Walmart is expanding its financial services such as check-cashing to “unbanked” Americans.[more]

As NPR’s follow-up blog post indicated, Walmart perhaps doth protest too much. The company’s top health care executive may have toned down the sweeping ambition described in the proposal that it sent out last month to a variety of health-care companies in search of strategic partners. But there’s no question the retail giant aims to make more money in the arena and to expand the quick-service clinics the company already has in some of its stores, where customers can get basic services such as cholesterol monitoring and pregnancy tests. 

And any indication of expanding its health-care services is bound to ruffle those in the medical community who fear that the chain’s bargain-basement approach isn’t appropriate for quality health care.

“Maybe Walmart can deliver a lot of this stuff more cheaply because it is an expert at doing this with other types of widgets, but health care is not a widget and managing individual human beings is not nearly as simple as selling commercial products to consumers,” Ann O’Malley, a physician and senior health researcher at the Center for Studying Health System Change, a non-partisan think tank, told MSNBC.

Walmart’s website lays out its current health and wellness offering, including a co-branded prescription partnership with Humana announced in Oct. 2010. Yet Walmart isn’t exactly a trailblazer in provision of on-site clinics by retailers: CVS, Walgreen and even Target arguably are ahead. Each retailer sees opportunity to build customer traffic, expand its brand, take advantage of the frustrations and confusion sown by higher health-care costs and Obamacare, and (eventually) turn a profit.

But as always, Walmart could become a game-changer — despite its protestations of no such intention.

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