Walmart

“Why is Wal-Mart speaking at a health care summit?” the company’s vice president for health and wellness, Marcus Osborne, rhetorically offered up at a conference back in January.

“Wal-Mart’s in retail, we’re not in health care.”

But as analysts, researchers, and other experts who spoke with me. took care to point out, Wal-Mart is in health care, and getting further entrenched by the year. In the past six months alone, Wal-Mart launched a major contracting initiative with half-a-dozen major hospitals, and dropped hints — since retracted — that the company is exploring new services like a health insurance exchange.

Notably, Osborne teased a broader health care strategy for Wal-Mart that would include “full primary care services over the next five to seven years,” in a Q&A at that January conference captured by the Orlando Business Journal.

Wal-Mart has since denied Osborne’s comments — the second time in about 18 months that the company has had to walk back stories about its planned primary care services — and Osborne subsequently stopped talking to the press. (Wal-Mart declined to comment, and Osborne did not respond to an interview request for this story.)
But Osborne’s remarks from that January conference, and his other archived speeches, are still readily accessible. And they paint a vivid picture of a company that’s not just a potential market-mover and disruptive innovator, but an organization that could do a lot to positively reform health care.

Background: Wal-Mart’s Growing Role in U.S. Health Care System

In many ways, this isn’t a new story. Back in 2007, Princeton University’s Uwe Reinhardt suggested to NPR that Wal-Mart could be “taking aim at the entire health care system” by expanding its new discount drug program.

“I think it’s a really fascinating way to come out of the corner and really slug the system,” Reinhardt said at the time. “At the moment, the body blows don’t hurt. But they add up. I’m watching this with great fascination, and expect more from them.”

And in subsequent years, Wal-Mart did grow its health care footprint, from launching retail clinics based within its stores to advocating for national health reform. Considering its history — as recently as 2005, Wal-Mart had little involvement in the health care market and was being pilloried for skimping on its own employees’ benefits — it’s been a significant turnaround for the firm, and has positioned Wal-Mart as one of the leading disruptive innovators in health care. Continue reading “Wal-Mart Could Transform Care–But Does It Want To?”

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At our first meeting years ago, Tom Emerick, Walmart’s then VP of Global Benefits, told me,

“No industry can grow indefinitely at a multiple of general inflation. It will eventually become so expensive that purchasers will simply abandon it.”

He said it casually, as though it was obvious and indisputable.

Health care is playing out this way. From 1999 to 2011, health care premium inflation grew steadily at 4 times the general inflation rate. During that same period, the percentage of non-elderly Americans with employer-sponsored health coverage fell from 69.2 to 58.6 percent, a 15.3 percent erosion rate.

Health care’s boosters like to argue that it has buttressed the economy, and that it means more jobs and economic prosperity within a community. A February 2011 Altarum Institute report estimated that private sector health care jobs now account for nearly 11 percent of total employment. Since the recession began in December 2007, health care employment has risen by 6.3 percent while employment in other industry sectors fell by 6.8 percent.

But there’s a darker side. Health care’s ever-increasing revenue growth has come at the expense of individuals and firms that pay its bills, directly through health plan premiums, and through taxes, often instead of buying other goods and services. It transfers wealth to health care from everyone else. Like the finance services industry, health care has become a disproportionate “taker” industry, sapping economic vitality from America’s communities.

Continue reading “Irresistible Forces”

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Walmart — the nation’s largest retailer and biggest private employer – now wants to dominate a growing part of the health care market, offering a range of medical services from basic prevention to management of chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease, according to a confidential company document.

In the same week in late October that Walmart announced it would stop offering health insurance benefits to new part-time employees, the retailer sent out a request for information seeking partners to help it “dramatically … lower the cost of healthcare … by becoming the largest provider of primary healthcare services in the nation.”

On Tuesday, Walmart spokeswoman Tara Raddohl confirmed the proposal but declined to elaborate on specifics, calling it simply an effort to determine “strategic next steps.”

The 14-page request asks firms to spell out their expertise in a wide variety of areas, including managing and monitoring patients with chronic, costly health conditions. Partners are to be selected in January.

Analysts said Walmart is likely positioning itself to boost store traffic – possibly by expanding the number of, and services offered by, its in-store medical clinics. The move would also capitalize on growing demand for primary care in 2014, when the federal health law fully kicks in and millions more Americans are expected to have government or private health insurance.

“We have a massive primary care problem that will be made worse by health reform,” says Ian Morrison, a Menlo Park, Calif-based health-care consultant. “Anyone who has a plausible idea on how to solve this should be allowed to play.”

Continue reading “Walmart Wants To Be Nation’s Biggest Primary Care Provider”

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