To retail behemoths, the health care realm is growing irresistible. Insurance giant Cigna is spending $52 billion on pharmacy benefit manager Express Scripts; other insurance giant Aetna will be bought by beloved chain pharmacy CVS for $69 billion; and, for a paltry $1 billion, Amazon has acquired online pharmacy PillPack. This last transaction came on the heels of a fight: another Pillpack suitor was the nation’s biggest private employer, WalMart. 

But the discount chain has made other major moves that may foretell the store’s centrality in the health care arena. Having recently appointed Sean Slovenski—formerly a senior executive at Humana, the Louisville, Kentucky-based insurer valued at over $41 billion—to head up its health and wellness division, WalMart is poised to present a whole new level of value to its weekly customer base, already 140 million strong. 

Last month, WalMart made a deal with Anthem, a major insurer, that will allow Medicare patients to use their over-the-counter plan allowances for purchases made on "We are pleased to join with Walmart to create an initiative that combines Anthem’s deep understanding of the needs of senior consumers, with Walmart’s unwavering commitment to saving people money and developing a seamless shopping experience,” said Felicia Norwood, Executive Vice President at Anthem. “We believe that programs like this can make a tremendous difference for healthcare consumers who often live on a fixed income or are managing chronic medical conditions.”

“Always Low Prices” would be an untenable mantra in U.S. healthcare, but WalMart phased out that famous catchphrase in 2008. Perhaps the store’s new slogan represents a healthcare promise that really can be delivered: “Save money. Live better.”

Why This Matters

In the nascent fight for healthcare dominance, WalMart boasts a significant advantage over Amazon, though it may seem counter-intuitive at first: it has brick-and-mortar stores.

According to Charles O’Shea at Moody’s, “You have thousands of physical locations, so the convenience is there.” But the promise of these old-school stores is bigger than convenience: with so many stores in rural and other hard-to-reach areas, WalMart’s forthcoming offerings may change the game for some underserved populations. In these communities, health care options are often scarce, and many people already use Walmart as a community center and one-stop shop. 

Its conventional stores may empower Walmart to step up its offerings in another major way. Experts speculate that the chain may ultimately hire doctors and nurses to staff its retail locations, which will then be equipped to offer low-cost medical care. 

About the Author:

Ben helps spark innovative healthcare thinking as Associate Director of Innovation. Previously on the editorial staff of Vanity Fair, he brings experience in engaging, rigorous storytelling to the healthcare world. Ben’s goals are to move brands to rethink their roles, own their evolving narratives, and maintain vital and vigorous consumer relationships.