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Walmart rolls out new healthcare benefits for employees

Walmart will test a variety of new healthcare programs for some of its workers next year, aiming to provide easier access and better care while also reducing its own expenses.

The nation’s biggest private employer will use a data analytics company to connect workers with select local physicians in a few regions, expand its telehealth program in other areas and offer healthcare “concierges” to act as a single point of contact for staff in North Carolina and South Carolina, according to a statement Thursday.

The company is also adding a $35 co-pay for doctor visits in its most-used medical plan, and providing discounted gym memberships.

“If you get people the right care, you end up seeing downstream savings in the long run,” said Lisa Woods, Walmart’s senior director of U.S. benefit strategy and design. “If we get this right, we can raise the tide for all health care.”

The steps, which take effect in January, are the latest example of how Walmart has sweetened the benefits offered to its 1.5 million U.S. employees, after weathering years of criticism that it shortchanged them. The moves include everything from expanding parental leave to relaxing its dress code.

The changes come amid a broader healthcare push by Walmart, a strategy that includes opening low-cost medical clinics for shoppers, offering subsidized degrees in health-related fields and rolling out a bundle of healthcare offerings for members of its Sam’s Club warehouse chain.

The new programs will be available only in some regions at first; Walmart declined to provide a timetable for a broader rollout. In one, associates in Orlando and Tampa, Fla.; Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas; and Walmart’s home in Northwest Arkansas will be steered to a prescreened group of physicians in eight specialties, including primary care, cardiology and obstetrics.

Embold, the data-analytics company, selects the physicians who “consistently deliver the best outcomes,” Walmart said. If employees prefer other physicians, they will pay more.

The so-called Featured Providers network builds on Walmart’s existing Centers of Excellence program, which flies employees to facilities such as the Mayo Clinic to get advice on issues like whether or not to have heart or spinal surgery.

Next year, Walmart will add kidney transplants to the list of procedures it covers through the Centers of Excellence program. That program began in 2013 and is part of a larger trend of big employers trying to gain more control over health-care costs, as evidenced by the alliance between Amazon.com, Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase. Some 30 percent of all healthcare spending is wasted, according to the National Academy of Medicine.

In recent years, employers’ healthcare costs have remained steady as a share of their total compensation expenses. They’ve done that, partly, by shifting costs to employees. The cost of family health coverage in the U.S. now tops $20,000, an annual survey of employers found, a record high that has pushed more American workers into plans that cover less or cost more. The steady rise of costs has led to deep frustration with healthcare, as some employers drop coverage while some workers choose not to enroll.

Walmart’s decision to add $35 co-pays for primary care visits should encourage employees to seek care earlier rather than wait until it becomes an urgent issue, a company spokesman said. Under the current plan, the cost of routine doctor visits can vary, and are charged against employees’ health reimbursement accounts or their deductible.

Walmart’s other new programs include “personal online doctors” who can help manage chronic conditions and coordinate specialty care for employees in Colorado, Minnesota and Wisconsin at first. In North and South Carolina, staffers will gain access to a personalized healthcare assistant to help with all their medical needs, from billing questions to understanding diagnoses. Memberships to some gym clubs will also be offered to all employees, starting at $9 per biweekly pay period.

Bloomberg News