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Phia Group Media

The End of a (Brief) Era

By: David Ostrowsky

It was a nice feel-good story of corporate America helping the commonfolk.

Five years ago, Walmart, the multi-billion-dollar retail behemoth, opened its first-ever health clinic in Georgia. Soon, dozens more Walmart-sponsored clinics started opening their doors across not just Georgia, but also Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Missouri, and Texas. Most of these pop-up clinics operated in rural communities where chronic diseases were rampant and (affordable) primary care options were scarce. Irrespective of the pandemic soon unfolding, they served their purpose: customers shopping for microwaveable dinners and bath supplies could stop by for a doctor’s appointment, get stitched up, take a flu test, or even get X-rays done, all for a very reasonable fee. As many of these shoppers/patients either lacked health insurance or had high deductible plans with imposing out-of-pocket costs, these clinics represented their only viable option for obtaining any semblance of proper healthcare. Surely, some had not been to a doctor of any type for years.

Now, the not-so-good news that recently dropped: last month, the Bentonville, Arkansas-based retailer announced that it will soon cease operations in all 51 of its healthcare centers as well as cut off virtual healthcare services. In a company-released statement, Walmart noted that this was a “difficult decision,” but its healthcare push was not profitable for the company because of the “challenging reimbursement environment and escalating operating costs.”

Walmart remains the country’s most profitable retail corporation – its stock price is hovering around an all-time high – yet because this healthcare endeavor was not deemed financially viable, thousands of low-income Americans who have benefited from affordable and convenient primary and urgent care – not to mention dental work as well – are now left in the dark. (It should be noted that Walmart plans to continue operating 4,600 pharmacies and over 3,000 optical centers nationwide.) Walmart has not yet provided specific dates for when its health centers will shutter but said that it will divulge that information when it’s available. However, two people familiar with the situation who were interviewed (anonymously) by CNBC, said that the clinics will close over the next 45 to 90 days. Either way, it seems safe to say that the masses of underserved Americans who have reaped the benefits of Walmart clinics now need to scramble to find another option or go without healthcare.

This development is in equal parts discouraging and surprising. It was just over a year ago, in March 2023, that Walmart revealed its plans to incorporate over two dozen health centers into its superstores located in Dallas, Houston, Phoenix, and Kansas City among other locales. But, on the other hand, perhaps it’s not so shocking, considering the dire state of the healthcare industry, specifically the dearth of primary care providers in America, which, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges, could exceed 55,000 in the next decade. Also, in fairness, it was a tall order for a corporation selling retail products like shampoo and oatmeal to have the expertise and managerial resources to pivot to a vastly different line of work. But, for a while anyways, it all seemed to work.

While Walmart made a commendable effort in leveraging its massive financial scale and brick-and-mortar presence to provide convenient, reasonably priced healthcare services to patients in rural outposts, ultimately the multi-trillion-dollar American healthcare system, one rife with systemic inefficiencies and complications, proved immune to undergoing radical change.