Wal-Mart Adds In-Store Program to Help Customers Compare Insurance Offerings

Wal-Mart announced Monday that it will dive deeper into the health-care market, unveiling an initiative to allow customers to compare and enroll in health insurance plans in thousands of its stores.

Wal-Mart is teaming with DirectHealth.com, an online insurance comparison site and independent health insurance agency, to set up counters in its stores where consumers can talk to licensed agents about plan options.

“Our goal is to be the number one health-care provider in the industry,” said Labeed Diab, president of health and wellness for Wal-Mart U.S. “And the more we broaden our assortment, the more we broaden our offering, the more we educate the customer Wal-Mart is a great place to create a one-stop shop.”

Over the past several years, Wal-Mart has moved to expand its reach beyond retail into the health-care sector, where Americans are spending an increasingly larger share of their dollars. Earlier this year, the Bentonville, Ark.-based company began opening primary-care centers at several of its locations. Hundreds of its stores include acute-care clinics that offer a basic menu of services, including flu shots and blood-pressure screenings. Wal-Mart made waves about eight years ago when it announced it would offer generic versions of some prescription drugs for just $4.

Some Wal-Mart competitors are by some measures outdoing the big-box retailer with their forays into health care: CVS, for example, has more than 800 retail clinics, according to consulting firm Merchant Medicine. Walgreens has about 400 of them, while Wal-Mart has about 100.

Wal-Mart first began hosting agents from individual insurers in its stores in 2005. The newly announced offering expands on that, with the agents able to guide customers through thousands of plans from hundreds of carriers. Direct­Health.com agents will receive a commission if they enroll an in-store customer in a health plan.

Diab said Wal-Mart hopes this one-on-one service will become a gateway for customers to come to their stores for all of their health-care needs.

“You’re educating the consumer on a very, very complex part of the [health-care] space,” Diab said. “And when you do that, they want you to take care of their prescription needs, their over-the-counter needs, their optical needs, the clinics.”

The program, known as Healthcare Begins Here, kicks off Oct. 10 and will run in stores through Dec. 7, closely tracking with the Medicare open-enrollment period and partially overlapping with the open enrollment period for federal health insurance exchanges. The company said it will monitor the success of the program and potentially bring it back next year.

Wal-Mart will initially offer the program at 2,700 of its 4,311 U.S. stores. Marcus Osborne, Walmart’s vice president of health and wellness payer relations, said the company selected locations based on customer interest and demand.

“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,” Osborne said.

Wal-Mart’s expansion of its health and wellness offerings comes as the company is facing flat comparable store sales and slower foot traffic in its U.S. stores. Price-conscious consumers have been slow to open their wallets, even though the economy is showing steady signs of improvement. Meanwhile, the company is investing heavily in ramping up its e-commerce operation and in building new stores, including in its small-format Neighborhood Markets concept, which it hopes will help create greater opportunities to boost sales.

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