Walmart unveils major employee health benefit changes aimed at cost cutting

Retail giant Walmart—the largest employer in the U.S.—is looking to use more of its muscle in the healthcare space.

Walmart announced Thursday it's piloting several new initiatives in the health benefits it offers workers, aiming to steer employees toward high-quality providers and reduce unneeded costs. 

The company spotlighted five new programs for its 2020 benefits, saying it intends to use its massive size to make healthcare easier for its employees to navigate. The new options build on the retailer’s existing centers of excellence programs, which proved popular with workers, said Lisa Woods, Walmart’s senior director of U.S. benefits, in a statement.

“Associates came back saying, ‘I didn’t know healthcare could look like this,’” Woods said. “They asked us to bring the same transparency, effectiveness, and quality of care to their communities.” 

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The five programs unveiled are: 

  1. A list of “featured” providers 

  1. Expanded telehealth 

  1. A personal healthcare assistant 

  1. A national quality provider resource 

  1. Nationwide access to fitness clubs 

Walmart will pilot its featured providers' list among workers in Orlando-Tampa, Dallas-Fort Worth and northwestern Arkansas, where the corporation is headquartered. In the program, the retailer will curate a list of local, high-quality physicians across eight specialties: primary care, cardiology, gastroenterology, endocrinology, obstetrics, oncology, orthopedics and pulmonology. 

The regional lists will be maintained in partnership with Embold Health, a healthcare data analytics company that will track and monitor quality data that are updated quarterly. 

Walmart said the goals are to both give workers the information needed to make healthcare decisions based on quality and to offer feedback to regional physicians who may want to work their way onto the featured lists. 

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Steve Wojcik, vice president for public policy at the National Business Group on Health, told FierceHealthcare that this is the next step in Walmart’s broader healthcare goals—and it aligns with the company’s core business goals. 

“I think it’s in line with Walmart’s goal of disrupting and transforming healthcare in a way to promote better value,” he said. 

Walmart is also building on its existing benefits in the telemedicine space, the company said. Workers previously had access to telehealth on nearly every plan, but beginning in 2020 Walmart will offer a “personal online doctor” in its Colorado, Minnesota and Wisconsin plans. 

The pilot will allow workers to opt in to access the online doc and a care team to assist with managing chronic conditions, planning referrals and offering nutritional counseling. Walmart estimates that the program will cut down wait times to within one hour for a primary care virtual visit and within one week for a behavioral health visit. 

Wojcik said that while Walmart has been ahead of the pack on innovative health programs, its efforts could lead more employers to follow suit. 

“I think some employers are somewhat hesitant to take the lead on a change in healthcare,” he said. “If they see other employers—especially big-name employers—doing it, they might be willing to step forward and do something similar.”