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Walmart's latest venture: 'We want to be the #1 health care provider in the industry.'

October 7, 2014

    Dan Diamond, Executive Editor

    Walmart wants to be your doctor. Now it wants to help you shop for insurance, too.

    On Monday, the retail giant announced a new partnership with DirectHealth.com, an online insurance comparison site and health insurance agency.

    It's a short-term partnership (Walmart plans to have it run for only two months) with long-term potential. About 2,700 Walmart stores will feature counters staffed by DirectHealth.com agents, who will help consumers shop for Medicare health plans and navigate Obamacare’s health insurance exchanges

    Walmart's strategically positioning the new counters around the country. (Only half of Walmart stores will host DirectHealth.com agents.)

    "We know where Medicare-eligible customers live today, and where there’s need for that, and where there are larger numbers of potential customers who could avail themselves of the public exchange," Marcus Osborne, Walmart’s vice president of health and wellness payer relations, told the Washington Post's Sarah Halzack.

    Related: Walmart's moves matter. But here's what's really important for CEOs.

    Walmart's also strategically positioning the partnership on the calendar, too. The two-month partnership will officially launch on Friday—just five days before Medicare's open enrollment period begins, and a few weeks before open enrollment for the Affordable Care Act's health insurance exchanges.

    It's the latest reminder that Walmart's health care aspirations go beyond hosting retail clinics or selling generic drugs.

    "Our goal is to be the number one health-care provider in the industry," according to Labeed Diab, senior vice president and president of Health & Wellness for Walmart.

    "The more we broaden our assortment, the more we broaden our offering, the more we educate the customer Walmart is a great place to create a one-stop shop."

    Health care for $4: Walmart launches primary care clinics in South Carolina

    New plan helps Walmart continue to push into health care

    We've been tracking Walmart's steady push into the health care industry, which has picked up momentum in the past few months, even as Walmart's same-store retail sales have slowed down.

    Lisa Bielamowicz, the Advisory Board's chief medical officer, has explored the implications of Walmart's potential entry into health care delivery and insurance. And this summer, I took a closer look at Walmart's emerging strategy to move into primary care.

    Keep in mind: Walmart's potential as a health care disruptor is enormous.

    • U.S. hospital EDs get 130 million visits per year.
    • Walmart stores get more than 150 million visits—per week.

    The latest partnership with DirectHealth.com offers key advantages for Walmart, according to Alicia Daugherty. (Alicia directs the Advisory Board's marketing and planning research.)

    For example, more than 60% of Americans say they have problems shopping for health insurance. But through Walmart's partnership, "people who have questions about insurance options now have a familiar physical location to go to have their questions answered," Alicia pointed out, "rather than waiting on hold to speak with someone via phone."

    "And while they’re at the store, they’ll probably also do some shopping."

    Given that the partnership will touch roughly half of Walmart’s stores, Walmart could also use the new venture to gauge each market’s interest in health care products. "That could help them decide where to roll out clinics next," Alicia noted.

    There's another important takeaway for health care executives, too: Walmart's partnership with DirectHealth.com is a reminder that "retail" in health care doesn't just mean "retail clinics."

    Beyond the clinics: What the retail movement really means

    "Walmart’s new announcement offers even more evidence of the new retail market for health insurance," Rob Lazerow told me. (Rob helps lead the Advisory Board's work on accountable care and payment innovation.)

    "And we believe this retail insurance market—where consumers have substantial control over selecting their health insurance—will be the transformative version of 'retail' in health care."

    Get all our insights on retail strategy

    The insurance marketplace is changing to something more akin to a retail marketplace. And it raises an important question for providers: how do we get chosen? Come find out at our national meeting series.


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