Walmart will open at least six additional Walmart Health clinics in the greater Atlanta area by the end of 2020, the retail giant confirmed to CNBC.
The news comes on the heels of its announcement this week that it will enter the Florida market next year, starting with the Jacksonville area. And it said in June it will open two clinics in the Chicago area by end of year.
That would bring its total clinics that offer primary care, dental exams and other medical services to at least 13 by year end. It already has four Walmart Health clinics: Three in Georgia and one in Springdale, Ark., close to Walmart’s Bentonville headquarters.
Walmart is already the largest private sector employer and the largest grocer in the U.S., but it’s looking to become a major health-care player, too. Starting last fall, it opened Walmart Health clinics that offer expansive services, including annual checkups, X-rays, hearing services and mental health counseling. It already has pharmacies and optical centers at many of its stores.
As part of its the health care push, Walmart could consider using related perks to differentiate from its e-commerce competitor, Amazon.
The retailer is developing a subscription-based service called Walmart+ — but has not provided details about when it will launch, what it will cost or what benefits it will include. The program is Walmart’s answer to Amazon Prime, a subscription program that’s grown to more than 150 million members since it debuted about 15 years ago.
Walmart’s e-commerce business is not yet profitable and has largely been fueled by strong grocery sales. Similar to Amazon Prime, Walmart’s membership program could rev up its e-commerce business and drive greater loyalty.
Walmart’s stock rose 7% in early July on a report by Recode that the service would launch this month. According to the report, the membership program will cost $98 per year and include same-day delivery of groceries, fuel discounts at Walmart gas stations and other perks. The report cites multiple unnamed sources.
It is unclear if any health-care perks will be part of Walmart+. Walmart already has relationships with several telemedicine companies. The retailer’s approximately 1.5 million U.S. employees have access to Doctor on Demand through if they’re enrolled in a health benefits plan. And Sam’s Club, its membership-only stores, recently partnered with a telemedicine start-up called 98point6.
Walmart’s new locations in Georgia will be in Newnan, Fayetteville, McDonough, Cartersville, Marietta and Woodstock, company spokeswoman Marilee McInnis said. All of those cities and towns are in the greater Atlanta area.
A patient at Walmart Health
James Gardner, a Boston-based retail healthcare consultant, said the mix of locations for Walmart clinics will allow the company to test its success in different kinds of markets. In Georgia, for example, there are fewer primary care options and lower access to care. In Chicago, on the other hand, there are many well-known major health care system. And in Florida, he said, the retailer can attract the state’s high population of senior citizens who may be more attracted to a low-cost model because they’re frequent health care users, but have fixed incomes.
He said Walmart has three major advantages in the health-care industry: Its low prices stand out from rivals. Its clinics are doctor-led versus other similar clinics, which tend to rely on nurse practitioners or medical assistants. And it has a ready-made audience of customers who already consider the locations convenient and go there to shop.
“I can imagine shopping while your spouse is seeing the doctor,” he said. “There are just a lot of permutations that will make it fit into people’s lives really seamlessly.”
Walmart began piloting its new clinics, called Walmart Health, last year in Georgia. The company has emphasized their convenience, transparent pricing and lower fees. The clinics are next to its stores and share a parking lot. They have an entrance that connects to the store, but also have a separate door that patients can use for privacy.
Clinics range in size from 5,200 square feet to 8,800 square feet. They include exam rooms, a waiting area and larger rooms that host community events, such as a free yoga class or nutrition seminar. The clinics are staffed by doctors, nurse practitioners, dentists, counselors and optometrists employed by Walmart.
Patients pay a flat fee for a doctor’s visit or other services. An annual checkup for an adult costs $30. A strep test or mono test costs $20. A dentist exam is $25, including X-rays. A 45-minute counseling session costs $45. Clinics accept health insurance, but for some patients, it’s cheaper to pay out of pocket.
Walmart is testing different concepts to get more customers in the door. Among them, the company considered a membership-based health program that would offer perks like discounted telemedicine, free prescription delivery and preferred access for doctor’s appointments, according to sources familiar with Walmart’s plans.
The membership idea would have allowed customers to pay $10 a month for benefits, such as discounted access to telemedicine visits, as well as prescription deliveries, generic prescriptions, glasses and contact lenses and over-the counter medications. The idea was ultimately tabled, according to the sources.
A patient in the X-Ray room at Walmart Health
Walmart has more than 4,700 stores across the country, including many in small towns and rural areas that have a shortage of health-care services and medical professionals.
Walmart’s Health clinics cover just a tiny portion of the retailer’s national footprint. Comments by company executives and job openings on its careers website, however, indicate the company is focused on turning the clinics into a long-term business that’s profitable and scalable.
Walmart tapped Sean Slovenski from insurer Humana to lead its health and wellness efforts in the U.S. In a post on Walmart’s website this week, he said the retailer is committed to providing more Americans with affordable and accessible health care — and said the coronavirus and recession has only created greater need.
That’s why, he said, the company will open its first clinics in Florida next year.
“The combined crises of the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic recession and subsequent loss of health insurance for millions of Americans have reinforced the vulnerabilities of our healthcare system,” he said. “At Walmart, we understand that this means our customers need us now, more than ever. We don’t take this responsibility lightly and are committed to helping our customers save money while living better – and healthier.”
The company recently sought a senior director to help with “transformation and optimization” of the Walmart Health model, according to a job post on Walmart’s careers website last week. The post said the person who steps into the role would lead “the overall effort to deliver a model for Walmart Health to deliver sustainable financial results over the long-term” and help figure out pricing, hours of operation and “strategies to optimize the consumer experience and ensuring high clinical quality, but while also working to manage expenses.”
The job posting is no longer available on the careers website.
Its careers website lists numerous jobs for its Walmart Health clinics and a few corporate roles for the health and wellness business. Some of the job descriptions describe the company’s long-term goals, saying it is “dedicated to developing and implementing strategies to help Walmart more fully participate in the growing ~$3 trillion healthcare industry.”
Gardner, a healthcare consultant, said one of Walmart’s greatest challenges will be making money while still driving down prices. He said buildout of the clinics alone is a significant investment, then add in the salaries of doctor’s and nurses.
“There’s just a heavy burden of costs — long before you see your first patient,” he said. “It’s a slim margin business, and they’re threading a needle with a lot of moving parts and not a lot of margin for error.”
Walmart has made other recent health-care moves. Last month, it acquired technology from CareZone, a start-up that helps people manage multiple medications. It quietly registered as an insurance broker and listed job openings for insurance agents in the Dallas area.
As it ramps up its health-care business, Walmart will compete with old rivals and new ones. Amazon indicated its interest in health care when it bought online pharmacy PillPack for about $750 million in 2018. Walgreens recently struck a deal with primary care company VillageMD to open doctor offices in 500 to 700 of its stores over the next five years. CVS Health, which owns insurer Aetna, is remodeling 1,500 drugstores by the end of 2021 to turn them into HealthHUBs that have a health clinic, a lab for blood testing and other wellness services like yoga and consultations with dietitians. And numerous large health systems and smaller businesses like Carbon Health, Circle Medical and Forward offer primary care services.