NEW YORK (AP) — Walmart’s Sam’s Club is teaming up with several health care companies to offer discounts on routine care that customers might delay or skip because of the cost.
Starting next month, Sam’s Club members in Michigan, Pennsylvania and North Carolina will be able to buy bundles of health care services that include discounted dental care, free prescriptions for certain generic medications, and telehealth consultations.
Fees range from $50 for individuals to $240 for up to six family members. The pilot program could potentially expand to all states, said Lori Flees, senior vice president of Sam’s Club Health and Wellness.
The move comes as health care expenses place a growing strain on the budgets of many families and individuals, even those that have insurance coverage. Sam’s Club emphasized that the new initiative is not a health insurance plan but a discount health program designed to supplement insurance and bring down the costs patients pay out of pocket.
Annual deductibles for single coverage in employer-sponsored health plans have doubled over the past decade and now average $1,655 among plans that have deductibles, according to the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation. These deductibles, which a patient has to pay before most coverage starts, can be much higher for families and for individual plans purchased outside an employer.
Sam’s Club, where members pay an annual fee to shop, says its program is designed to cater to individuals, business owners and families who are delaying or skipping basic care because of high deductibles.
“We are lowering the barrier for people to take care of themselves,” Flees said.
Each bundle offers savings on dental services with a network of providers through the health insurer Humana as well as unlimited telehealth for $1 per visit through a Seattle-based company called 98point6. The bundles also offer discounted vision exams and optical products. The number of free generic prescriptions ranges from five to 20 of the most popular medications, depending on what the member chooses.
For example, the family bundle includes access to a preventative lab screening that measures health indicators like diabetes, up to a 30% discount on chiropractic, massage therapy and acupuncture services, and a 10% discount on hearing aids. Each bundle also offers prepaid health debit cards to be used within the health services network.
The telehealth program will introduce patients to a new form of care in which people can be diagnosed and treated without talking to or seeing the doctor. Patients who click on the 98point6 app first tell their symptoms to a chatbot or automated assistant that uses artificial intelligence. The information then gets passed along to a doctor for diagnosis and treatment, often just through secure messaging.
The more common telehealth method of using video is available if needed, and patients also will be able to speak to their doctors if they want.
Insurers and many employers like Walmart and Amazon have been touting video telemedicine as a way to give their employees or customers fast, convenient access to help. But benefits experts say people have been slow to start using the new technology. Some forget about it because they may not need it until long after they learn about it.
John Marchisin, managing director of the health care practice at global management consultancy AArete, calls the move by Sam’s Club “brilliant.”
“This fills the gap, making health care more affordable to customers,” he said. “Sam’s Club is providing the first level of preventative care.”
Marchisin said the pilot program will only enable Sam’s Club to deepen its relationship with its customers and give them an opportunity to sell more health care services.
Sabrina Corlette, founder and co-director of the Center on Health Insurance Reforms at Georgetown University, was more cautious. She believes customers could benefit from having discounts on dental and other services like massage therapy. But she says many insurance programs cover generic prescriptions.
She noted that customers should think about their health care needs as they study the bundles and their own insurance plans.
AP Health Writer Tom Murphy reported from Indianapolis.