The country’s largest private employer wants to help you sign up for health insurance. This week, Walmart announced that 2,700 of its stores will be staffed with insurance agents to help customers enroll in new plans under Medicare or Obamacare’s new private insurance marketplaces — a move that the retail giant likely hopes will get more people in the door. The “Healthcare Begins Here” program begins on October 10.
The foot traffic to Walmart’s stores has remained sluggish since the recent economic downturn, so the company has been experimenting with a couple of different ways to boost sales. Walmart recently expanded its efforts to allow shoppers to purchase car insurance. Adding more health care services is a way to compete with big pharmacy chains like CVS and Walgreens, which have begun to offer retail clinics for patients who may want a broad range of primary care services.
“Our goal is to be the number one health-care provider in the industry,” Labeed Diab, Walmart’s president of health and wellness, said in a statement. “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.”
So this fall, during the open enrollment period for Medicare and Obamacare’s marketplaces, Walmart will partner with the insurance site DirectHealth.com to help shoppers compare their different enrollment options. Citing research from the Kaiser Family Foundation that shows up to 60 percent of people are confused about their health insurance choices, Diab says that there’s a real opportunity for Walmart to bring more transparency to the process. Agents from DirectHealth.com will be available to help customers enroll in government plans either online or over the phone.
Last year, during Obamacare’s first open enrollment period, several big companies helped publicize their customers’ new options under the health care law. Pharmacies like Rite Aid, Walgreens, and CVS rolled out information campaigns about the new Obamacare plans, and some other retailers that don’t typically focus on health care services — like Trader Joe’s and Turbo Tax — also got involved in the effort.
In general, the health care market has become an attractive one for companies to pursue. In addition to the pursuit of retail clinics, tech companies like Apple and Facebook are increasingly interested in finding ways to help people monitor their medical information and connect them with health resources.
But insurance benefits have actually been a source of controversy for Walmart over the past several years, at least when it comes to the type of health care options available to the company’s own employees. In 2006, after public backlash over the fact that many of Walmart’s low-wage workers couldn’t afford its benefits, the chain expanded its health plan to cover more part-time employees. But in 2012, the company contracted its insurance benefits again, shifting its employees back onto the Medicaid program and Obamacare’s new private plans.
At the time, health policy experts agreed that Walmart was taking advantage of the new law to trim its costs and continue offering skimpy plans. “The packages Walmart is providing for low-income people aren’t offering very much coverage except for catastrophes. It’s likely they’ll be better off going with a government-sponsored plan,” Linda Blumberg, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, told the Huffington Post.
Due to the low wages and scarce benefits extended to Walmart’s workers, most of them end up relying on government assistance programs to make ends meet. One analysis found that the workers at a single 300-person Supercenter store rely on anywhere from $904,542 to $1,744,590 in public benefits per year, partly because of the employees covered under Medicaid.