Is Wal-Mart Leading the Charge on Health Reform?

ParikhLast Wednesday’s  headline in the Wall Street Journal may have surprised you.  It read:  “Wal-Mart Backs Drive to Make Companies Pay for Health Coverage.”  The article discussed Wal-Mart’s open support for an employer mandate requiring all but small businesses to provide care for its workers, a stance that other retailers have opposed for obvious reasons.

I’ve been following the story of Wal-Mart and health care reform for the past several years.  While some see this move as the company’s way of trying to level the playing field between it and other retailers, it nevertheless has taken several actions over the past decade to make health care more accessible and affordable.

Wal-Mart’s transformation began in 2006, when then CEO Lee Scott shook hands with Andy Stern, the head of the Service Employees International Union. In the past, such a handshake would have been unimaginable.  Wal-Mart had earned a reputation for failing to provide its workers with health care, and the SEIU was one its strongest critics.

That changed with rising health care costs.  Wal-Mart, like labor, recognized the need to provide affordable health care.  The Scott/Stern handshake was a call for affordable care for all Americans by 2012.

This handshake can be seen as a bookend to another handshake decades ago, described by Malcolm Gladwell in a 2006 New Yorker piece.  This first handshake was, like this one, between two powerful men representing labor and industry:

“The president of General Motors at the time was Charles E. Wilson, known as Engine Charlie. Wilson was one of the highest-paid corporate executives in America, earning $586,100 (and paying, incidentally, $430,350 in taxes). He was in contract talks with Walter Reuther, the national president of the U.A.W. The two men had already agreed on a cost-of-living allowance. Now Wilson went one step further, and, for the first time, offered every G.M. employee health-care benefits”

Thus, American health care: –employer based, brokered by private insurers, and provided by doctors on a fee-for-service basis.  The kind of care that has created the fragmented market that most of are a part of today.  The kind that has left 48 million Americans uninsured and millions more underinsured and just one illness away from bankruptcy.   The kind of health care that led Wal-Mart the SEIU and the Center for American Progress to write a letter to the White House today in support of change.

As reported in the Journal, Wal-Mart has taken sincere steps to provide health care to its employees.  Today, as a result of cutting the time of eligibility in half and increasing choices of plans, 52% of Wal-Mart U.S. employees are covered by the company.  That’s compared to 45% of the rest of the retail industry.

Wal-Mart hasn’t just stepped up to increase coverage for its employees–in 2005, it became the first company to offer $5 generic prescriptions–a breakthrough price for people who previously needed to decide between taking their meds or eating dinner.

Wal-Mart has also been in the lead in opening walk-in clinics in its stores. Although the recession seems to have slowed the initial enthusiasm for retail medicine, the idea, in principle, has the potential to offer convenience at a very affordable price for people who have minor ailments like sore throats.

Finally, Wal-Mart has also recently started offering an electronic medical record to doctors.  While it remains to be seen whether it will sell, you have to give credit to the big box retailer for taking the initiative.

Whether you like or loath Wal-Mart (and all of us seem to fall into one or the other category), its efforts to shape up American health care shouldn’t go unnoticed. In fact, I would dare “real” health care groups, like the American Medical Association, to show that they can match Wal-Mart’s initiative and drive to improve health care.  So far, all we’ve seen from the AMA in the past few weeks has been a lot of lip service trying to assure us that they’re on the side of reform while behind closed doors, the Association’s members are still fighting about its future.  And remember, the AMA represents at best 20-30% of doctors in this country, which is one reason why the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof urged “President Obama, don’t listen to the A.M.A. on this issue. Instead, for starters, call your doctor!”

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KaiserodeteDr. Pat AllenRayThe EHR Guy Recent comment authors
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Kaiser
Guest

I don’t hate or love Wal-Mart, but I don’t think they should be in the business of shaping health care policy anymore than GM and Chrysler, or any other employer. If they want to sell drugs for $4 in order to increase store traffic, that is fine. If they want to become a discount health care provider through walk-in clinics, that is fine too. If they want to add EMRs to their line of discounted merchandise, that is great. It all serves the bottom line. Maybe their selfless involvement in health care policy is well intended, but the road to… Read more »

odete
Guest
odete

Can Wal-Mart charge associates 2 separate deductibles and 2 separate out of pocket for their health insurance according with the new Mental Health Parity Act?

Dr. Pat Allen
Guest

What a lively debate! I just wrote on this very topic for Women’s Voices For Change, a news and information blog geared towards the needs and interests of women over 40, many of whom are addressing the health care concerns you confront in this post.
“Wal-Mart Can Be Our Surprise Salvation: A Two-Part Discussion of The Retail Giant’s Health Care Reform Potential.”
http://womensvoicesforchange.org/wal-mart-can-be-our-surprise-salvation-a-two-part-discussion-of-the-retail-giants-health-care-potential.htm

Ray
Guest

I think Wal-Mart really wants to change its image as the greedy corporation. Whether they are sincere are not, providing good health care is a good way to show their critics that they sincerely want to change.

The EHR Guy
Guest

I forgot to mention:
McKesson sold whisky, later it sold milk, now it sells PACS, RIS, HIS, and a bunch of other stuff.
They took the whisky part out of their history section recently, I believe.
Why can’t Wal-Mart sell COWs? You do know what a COW does in a hospital, don’t you?
The EHR Guy

The EHR Guy
Guest

I heard McDonald’s and Wendy’s are going to compete for the PHR market.
Coca-Cola and Pepsi are getting into the EMR segment.
Can anyone verify this?
Does this sound too facetious?

lois hill
Guest
lois hill

like no if we get some affordable supperment help cover doctor visit ,,in stigler okla,,go to im63 disable cost it cost from 50.00 dallars to hunderand dallars with my medicare card i have one for 208.00dallars with my card im not pay it , i feel they or all been paid we in small early so no going check them out ,, i talk to people who dont have no insurance ,, ask they we pay 20..00dallars same doctorin stigler healt care for no insurance 1o..oodallars me with my card 20..oo to 50..oo dallars lois hill porum okla 918 484-2682

Steven
Guest

High time Walmart did something right. They had many corporate ethics issues a few years ago.

Nate
Guest
Nate

NHS trust bankrupt, do a yahoo search and you get 234,000 hits. Go to the BBC or Guardian sites, hardly right wing, and search NHS and you get thousands of stories. For those specific stories http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1196997/Hospital-patient-shocked-dirty-ward-climbed-bed-clean-herself.html http://cp24.com/servlet/an/local/CTVNews/20090626/090626_BABY_PASSPORTS/20090626/?hub=CP24Home Grant why in the world would you not beelive these to be true? Your view of healthcare in the world must be terribly jaded and masked. Do you really now know these are every day stories in the supposedly perfect systems outside the US? If these shock you then you really need to open your eyes. These two are funny, if you knew… Read more »

Grant
Guest
Grant

Nate: Please document the source of your tidbits on Canada/UK healthcare. This smacks of stories being bandied about on right wing talk radio. I don’t find them believable.
Where did you get the figure that 75% of Americans receive “far better” care than Canadians and the British? Please document your source.

World Vitamins Online
Guest

Your pointing this out is appreciated. We have heard so many negative stories in the media about Walmart concerning health care for their employees over the years it is good to see that one of this nations biggest employers is stepping up to the plate.

medinnovationblog.blogspot.com
Guest
medinnovationblog.blogspot.com

Keep in mind that 1/2 of Americans live within 5 miles of a Walmart. That simple fact, plus its low price strategy, makes Walmart a power capable of transforming the health care marketplace.

Nate
Guest
Nate

“I’d prefer a rational universal health care system along the lines of the NHS in England or Canada” Last week Canada sends a premy to the US for lack of capacity at home and today I read about patients covered by NHS cleaning their own hospital wards becuase they are filthy. Are these systems really rational or is it some people perceptions of them all that is rational. Most American’s are not familar with either system and have no information to make such a judgement except that feed to them by those in America advocating reform. I have not visted… Read more »

David C. Kibbe, MD MBA
Guest
David C. Kibbe, MD MBA

Rahul: This is a very nice piece, one that points out how affordable health care solutions — none of them yet ‘systems’ — are cropping up at the margins of the incumbent markets for health care services. Wal-Mart is a participant, as you say. So is CVS MinuteClinic; medical tourism; worksite and onsite clinics; and discount medication services in Canada and Mexico. As more and more people are forced to leave the incumbent market because they have no health insurance, or are significantly under-insured, they swell the ranks of what Clay Christensen calls the “non-consumers.” They can’t afford the high… Read more »

Margalit Gur-Arie
Guest

I don’t hate or love Wal-Mart, but I don’t think they should be in the business of shaping health care policy anymore than GM and Chrysler, or any other employer. If they want to sell drugs for $4 in order to increase store traffic, that is fine. If they want to become a discount health care provider through walk-in clinics, that is fine too. If they want to add EMRs to their line of discounted merchandise, that is great. It all serves the bottom line. Maybe their selfless involvement in health care policy is well intended, but the road to… Read more »