Anyone who had doubts about the depth of Walmart’s commitment to playing a bigger part in the nation’s health care system received a needed corrective in recent weeks as the company unveiled a series of initiatives designed to strengthen its impact in a sector that accounts for almost 20% of the U.S. economy. Following up on last month’s launch of Walmart Health, a pilot concept that brings together an unparalleled range of health and wellness services in a retail setting, the company started two programs aimed at associates — a mechanism to highlight providers with quality outcomes in their health insurance network and a health care track within its Live Better U educational benefit — while its Sam’s Club division began a test of the new Care Accelerator.
Building on the membership club’s tradition of, in the words of senior vice president of health and wellness Lori Flees, delivering value in unexpected ways, the retailer teamed up with health insurer Humana; 98point6, a company dedicated to using technology to facilitate the delivery of primary care; and Quest Diagnostics in a bid to make health care more affordable. In three test markets — Michigan, North Carolina and Pennsylvania — Sam’s Club members can now choose from four bundles ranging in price from $50 to $240 per year, which, depending on the selection, offer free or reduced-cost access to such products and services as generic drugs, telehealth, vision care, dentistry and even alternative medicine. While the bundles are not insurance they can provide savings on everyday health care needs.
Unlocking value at the points in the health care continuum where Sam’s Club members are under the most financial stress was the guiding principle in the development of the Care Accelerator. “We started by doing research that identified the things that members felt they were spending the most out-of-pocket dollars on,” Flees says. “For instance, chiropractic care, acupuncture and massage therapy are three types of wellness services that are often not covered by insurance today. They came up as an interest of members, so we found providers that we could work with in order to provide those services.”
Sam’s Club estimates that, on average, the two starter bundles will save users up to $400 a year, while the standard and premium-tier packages will yield up to $600 and $1,100 in savings, respectively. But, as Flees is quick to note, monetary consideration is only a part of the benefits delivered by the program. The Care Accelerator’s telehealth service, which costs just $1 per visit, is a case in point.
“We think there’s more value in what we’re offering than solely savings,” Flees explains. “The reality is a mother may not have called a doctor when her son had a cough and a slight fever and was nauseous if she knew she had to pay $50. She might give him some over-the-counter medicine, hydrate him and wait.
“But if she could consult a doctor for a dollar, that’s what she would do. The Care Accelerator is going to provide a lot of value and peace of mind for very little money.”
Although it is designed for individuals and families of up to six people, the program could also prove useful for the many small employers that are a key part of the membership base at Sam’s Club.
“We have small business members who are already augmenting their benefits with what we provide,” says Flees. “With our Plus membership, people can get high-quality frames and lenses for 20% off, and in our pharmacy, we have a benefit for Plus members that offers five free generic drugs and discounts on over 600 other medications.
“What we find is that small businesses augment their benefits offering to their associates with a Sam’s Club membership. Our new bundles may be specifically designed for an individual to use, but we find employers are seeing this as a value that they could offer to their employees for very little cost.”
The launch of the Care Accelerator is just the beginning of Sam’s Club’s stepped-up involvement in health care, according to Flees, one that will inevitably involve a good deal of trial and error.
“We want to test a few things: First what mix of services and price point resonates most with our members,” she says. “Second, we have to make sure that once a member buys a bundle, they use it. We don’t want to sell them something that doesn’t get used. That’s not giving them value.
“We can do loads of research, but you never know what the customer will do until you put the product in a market. Then you’ll learn so much. Do I think that we’ll roll out something for our members nationally? Yes. But we have a lot to learn before that would make sense. It’s early, but we’re moving in the right direction, and the response we’ve had from our stakeholders has given us confidence that we’re on the right track.”