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Retail clinics offer cost-effective care for allergies, study says

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INDIANAPOLIS — Retail health clinics are an effective and affordable care option for allergy sufferers when they’re unable to see their primary care doctor, according to a study by health benefit provider WellPoint Inc.

The study, conducted by HealthCore, WellPoint’s outcomes research arm, found that allergy sufferers can get relief from their symptoms and save anywhere from $50 to $400 in out-of-pocket costs per visit if they go to retail clinics or urgent care clinics — rather than the emergency room — when they can’t see their primary physician. The savings are based on the difference in patient co-pays, as well as on the expenses of patients with high-deductible health plans, who may pay the entire cost of the ER visit, WellPoint said.

"When possible, we recommend that our members visit their primary care physicians for nonemergency treatment," stated Dr. Manish Oza, WellPoint medical director and ER physician. "If that’s not an option, in cases where patients are looking for treatments related to allergies and colds — such as sinus infections, sore throats, ear infections and bronchitis — it just makes more economic sense to go to a retail health clinic or urgent care clinic."

In addition, the study showed that few patients who received care at retail health clinics — found in pharmacies, supermarkets or other stores — and urgent care clinics needed follow-up care for their ailment, implying that they received the appropriate level of care, according to John Barron, director of health plan research for HealthCore.

The study of members in WellPoint’s affiliated health plans in 14 states found that nearly one in five ER visits (19.4%) were for nonemergencies, including conditions such as upper respiratory infections, sore throats or urinary tract infections.

Bronchitis, one of the more expensive conditions to treat, cost $646 to treat in the ER, compared with $97 for an urgent care visit and $54 for a retail health clinic visit, according to the study. Average costs for ER visits for all conditions studied ranged from $441 for the ER to $98 for urgent care and $52 for retail care. The costs represent total costs, including the portion paid by the health plan member.

The HealthCore study showed that for every member treated at retail health clinics, about 15 others are treated in the ER for the same condition.

The study also looked at overall costs to treat individual episodes over a two-week period for ailments associated with allergy, cold and flu, along with conjunctivitis and urinary tract infections. In this case, ER episodes cost an average $500, while urgent care cost $150 and retail health clinics cost $90.

Over the past several years, retail clinics have been expanding their array of health care services. For example, MinuteClinic, a subsidiary of CVS Caremark Corp., last month announced that it has begun offering allergy treatment services and has introduced health condition monitoring services to help patients with diabetes, asthma, high cholesterol and high blood pressure.


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