May 10, 2021

Walmart just made a big leap into telehealth

Daily Briefing

    Walmart on Thursday announced that its health care division, Walmart Health, has purchased mental and medical telehealth provider MeMD, which provides 24/7 mental and medical telehealth services to roughly five million members across the United States.

    How Covid-19 will impact behavioral health services

    Walmart acquires MeMD

    Walmart's acquisition of MeMD still must undergo regulatory approval. The deal is expected to close in a few months, Becker's Health Review reports.

    According to Cheryl Pegus, EVP of health and wellness at Walmart, the acquisition will enable Walmart Health to offer virtual care services for urgent, behavioral, and primary care across the country. Walmart did not share the financial details of the agreement.

    Walmart opened its first freestanding health clinic in 2019, with facilities—offering services such as medical checkups, dental care, and mental health care—now open in Georgia, Texas, Arkansas, and Chicago. The company previously announced partnerships with Doctor on Demand, through which Walmart provides health care services to its 1.3 employees, and the direct-to-consumer telehealth app Ro.

    "Telehealth offers a great opportunity to expand access and reach consumers where they are and complements our brick-and-mortar Walmart Health locations," Pegus said of the MeMD acquisition. "Today people expect omnichannel access to care and adding telehealth to our Walmart Health care strategies allows us to provide in-person and digital care across our multiple assets and solutions."

    The Wall Street Journal reports that the deal represents Walmart's response to Amazon's recent scale-up of its Amazon Care services, which are now offered to employers in all 50 states.

    Walmart's move comes as CVS, Walgreens, and more bolster mental health services

    In addition to the implications of the deal for Walmart's competition with Amazon's telehealth services, the New York Times reports that the deal also aligns with several other retail chains' recent forays into mental health care services.

    For instance, CVS since January has hired licensed clinical social workers trained in cogitative behavioral therapy at 13 locations in Houston, Philadelphia, and Tampa, with plans to expand to 34 locations across those metro areas. The services will be covered by major insurers and Employee Assistant Program plans, and—for those not covered by insurance—range in cost from between $129 for an initial screening to $69 for a 30-minute session.

    According to a CVS spokesperson, the providers will offer mental health assessments, referrals, and counseling services either in-person or via telehealth. The providers—who will be able to coordinate prescriptions, when needed, with CVS pharmacists and NPs—will be available during the day, as well as in the evenings and on the weekend via CVS' MinuteClinics.

    Daniel Knecht, VP of clinical product at CVS Health, said the company aims to curb overall health care costs via the mental health pilot. Because unaddressed mental health issues can become crises, he said CVS' aspiration "is to make mental health services accessible and locally available so we can address these issues before the continue to expand and result in substantial morbidity and poor outcomes."

    Separately, Rite Aid said it was piloting teletherapy in the "virtual care rooms" of 13 stores located in Idaho, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. And Walgreens—which already offers no-cost access to online mental health screenings in collaboration with Mental Health America—is helping customers make therapy appointments with providers from BetterHelp or Sanvello via its web platform, Walgreens Find Care.

    Comments on retail chains' expansion into mental health

    "I think it's a smart model," Kali Cyrus, a psychiatrist at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington, D.C., and assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University, said of the various therapy programs. "By expanding availability, you increase visibility—and that helps reduce stigma."

    However, Cyrus questioned whether the clinics would offer a standardized approach when offering mental health services, especially considering that states may have different licensing and training requirements—as well as different protocols for handling psychiatric emergencies.

    Alfiee Breland-Noble, a health disparities researcher and founder of the AAKOMA Project, said of the therapy programs, "These are places where everybody goes. What remains to be seen is: How will increased accessibility limit—or manage, or reduce—stigma in communities where stigma is so high?"

    She added, "Are you going to walk into a store where everyone can see you walk into the designated clinical area?"

    Separately, Vaile Wright, senior director of health care innovation at the American Psychological Association, said while making mental health providers more accessible is helpful, that's not "the No. 1 barrier to accessing treatment. Cost is."

    But Riana Elyse Anderson, a clinical psychologist who researches how race and mental health care intersect, said retailer-provided therapy could help address most people's mental health needs.

    "The average person doesn't need intense long-term care," she said. "So even if only four meetings were possible with the possibility of a referral, that's at least going to help the average person feel better—and that's what's needed during chronically challenging times like now. I think it's a great way to get people some relief" (Nassauer/Winkler, Wall Street Journal, 5/6; Caron, New York Times, 5/7; Drees/Mitchell, Becker's Hospital Review, 5/6).

    Our take: How Covid-19 will impact behavioral health services

    The psychological impact of the Covid-19 pandemic is unprecedented—fear, isolation, distrust. This is rapidly increasing the need for behavioral health services. But there are significant gaps and barriers that stand in the way of people getting the help they need.

    Keep reading to get our take.

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