Dark Daily, a newsletter serving clinical labs and pathology groups, recently reported that a Walmart in Calhoun, Georgia has opened the second of the retail giant’s Health Centers. The Health Center offers low-cost doctor visits along with a number of other healthcare services such as lab work and x-rays. The prices for each service are listed at the entrance to the facility. The Walmart Health Centers are providing competition to traditional healthcare providers that they might find difficult to meet, at least for patients who lack health insurance.
For example, the cost of a typical doctor visit is about $106, though for people with insurance that is covered except for about a $25 copay. A Walmart Health Center doctor visit costs $40. The costs of other services are comparably cheaper than their traditional competitors.
Many proposed solutions to expanding access to healthcare for people who are uninsured involve variations of “Medicare for All,” a government-funded and -operated health insurance scheme that would either supplement or replace private insurance depending on which politician proposes it. The Walmart experiment suggests a free-market approach to providing healthcare, using price competition to lower the cost of certain services so that even the uninsured can readily afford them.
A recent article in Reason Magazine suggests that big retail-based healthcare services could provide a new model for private insurance. Instead of carrying insurance that would cover standard healthcare services such as doctor visits, a person might pay for those services out of pocket and carry insurance only for “catastrophic” healthcare services such as surgical procedures and cancer treatments.
Of course, a couple of questions must be asked about such an approach.
First, can traditional healthcare services learn to compete with the Walmart approach? The answer may depend on changes in government regulation that would make that easier.
Finally, how would people paying out-of-pocket for doctor visits be encouraged to go to the doctor for regular checkups? Standard health insurance provides such incentives. People paying out of pocket, even at a reduced price, may decide to forgo such a service if they feel healthy. This might mean that conditions whose symptoms are not immediately apparent would not be discovered until they are more advanced and thus harder to treat.
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