CVS-Aetna deal has major implications for retail health, primary care practices

A merger between CVS and Aetna is a shot across the bow that's aimed directly at primary care practices and other traditional providers.

The merger of one of the country’s largest pharmacy and retail healthcare chains with one of the largest for-profit health insurers has the potential to further shake things up for providers, which have faced increasing competition from retail clinics.

RELATED: 5 things to know about the CVS-Aetna deal

If the merger goes through, CVS plans to expand health services at its retail pharmacies, according to CVS and Aetna officials. Although it will take several years to accomplish, CVS will increase its number of clinics and add staff and equipment for a wider variety of treatments.

CVS now operates more than 1,000 MinuteClinics, and the pharmacy chain plans to use those clinics to improve access to preventative care and cut back on some emergency room visits for patients covered by Aetna.

It could be further competition for physician practices, as the majority of consumers who use retail medical services already have their own primary care physician but are attracted to walk-in clinics for their speed and convenience. Expanded coverage under the Affordable Care Act and a concomitant shortage of new physicians are additional drivers of the expansion in the number of retail healthcare outlets.

The CVS-Aetna deal is one of the largest healthcare mergers in history, and while consolidation has generally not been good for patients, this one may be an exception, writes Austin Frakt, Ph.D., director of the Partnered Evidence-Based Policy Resource Center at the VA Boston Healthcare System, in The New York Times. The merger could lead to reduced costs, a benefit for consumers, he says.

But despite the competition of retail clinics, they don’t provide the personal connections that many patients and physicians value.

In a national survey earlier this year, 89% of Americans said it’s important to have a relationship with a physician who knows their health background and family and medical history. Strong physician-patient relationships promote better outcomes. Research demonstrates that greater continuity in primary care could reduce hospital admissions and lower costs.

Many physician practices are also adapting to the new competition. Tired of seeing patients going to competitors who offered walk-in care, a group of primary care doctors in Pennsylvania opened their own walk-in clinic. Other practices have expanded their hours and offer weekend appointments. Some providers are also moving into facilities that are in locations closer to patients, such as shopping malls.