Walgreens Boots Alliance is making a move into primary care in Massachusetts, with plans to open more than 10 primary care practices in partnership with VillageMD by early next year.
The companies announced Thursday that the retail giant and the national primary care company would open the first location in Quincy in May, followed by others across the state. Branded as Village Medical at Walgreens, the clinics will be located within existing Walgreens spaces and offer what the companies describe as complete primary care services.
“We’re entering Massachusetts with the Village Medical partnership and will continue to look at additional ways, through payers or health systems and providers, to advance the Walgreens health strategy,” said Anita Allemand, chief transformation and integration officer at Walgreens Boots Alliance.
The opening marks the latest move by a retail giant into Massachusetts’ health care market following forays by Amazon and CVS. And it continues a national push for Walgreens and Village Medical, which began opening combined practices in Texas in 2019.
In 2020 the organizations announced plans to take the clinics nationwide, and in 2021, Walgreens made a $5.2 billion investment in VillageMD, saying it would accelerate the opening of at least 600 Village Medical at Walgreens primary care practices in more than 30 US markets by 2025.
The primary care push both in Massachusetts and nationally comes amid a broader increase in retail-owned primary care services. Last year, Amazon.com announced it would make its virtual care platform Amazon Care available to Amazon.com employees in all 50 states across the country, as well as to companies that contract with Amazon for the service. In some locations, Amazon Care includes both virtual and in-person visits. In Boston, Seattle, Baltimore, Dallas, Austin, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Arlington, medical professionals are dispatched to a patient’s home for additional care when virtual care can’t resolve a person’s issue. In-person services will be expanded in more than 20 new cities in 2022, the company has said.
CVS Health has also moved into primary care. In August, health insurance company Aetna, which is part of CVS Health, announced it would launch a virtual primary care offering for self-funded employers. In an earnings call late last year, CVS Health chief executive Karen Lynch said that CVS would “evolve the format of select CVS locations” into sites dedicated to offering primary care services.
Those services are in addition to the company’s HealthHUB model, which offers treatment of common illnesses as well as care for chronic conditions. In 2019 the company said it would open 1,500 HealthHUB locations by the end of 2021. To date, the company said there are 24 HealthHUB locations in Massachusetts.
Walmart has also made rapid advances into the health care space. The company launched Walmart Health in 2019. Today the retail giant has 24 Walmart Health locations across Arkansas, Georgia, Florida, and Illinois, offering services such as primary care, lab testing, x-rays, counseling, and dental services, depending on the location. Annie Patterson, director of global communications for Walmart, said in an e-mail that more Walmart Health centers were planned, though she declined to provide specific locations. .
In 2021 Walmart Health also acquired telehealth provider MeMD, providing virtual urgent, behavioral, and primary care across the nation.
Rena Conti, associate professor of markets, public policy, and law at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, said both large retailers and existing health systems have eyed the suburbs as their next expansion target, looking for cost savings and ease of access such locations provide.
Large retailers in particular see a way to leverage the existing relationships they have with customers. For retailers with ties to insurers, offering primary care is another way to generate revenue while also controlling more of patients’ health care experiences and data, which retailers can use to streamline care.
“There is a seamlessness of information,” Conti said, “When Aetna and CVS are providing direct primary care to patients, all the data — about this patient’s diagnosis, chronic disease, when was the last time they got primary care — is contained in the same system. The opportunity for doing more chronic disease management in the community at local, easy to access, not costly to access, convenient points of contact is exciting.”
Recent state data points to the need. According to a report from the Center for Health Information and Analysis released Thursday, a biennial statewide survey taken from 2015 to 2019 showed that nearly a third of residents had difficulty accessing care at a doctor’s office or clinic. Among the reasons they cited: Clinics weren’t accepting new patients, clinics didn’t accept their insurance, patients were uninsured, or the clinic didn’t have an appointment available quickly enough.
While the primary care expansion is the first foray Walgreens is making into the Massachusetts health care space, the company has been eyeing the sector for some time.
Walgreens Health was launched last fall as a new business segment. Also last year, Walgreens Boots Alliance made majority investments in CareCentrix, a post acute care company, and Shields, a pharmacy provider for specialty medications for health systems and hospitals. Walgreens Health has also begun offering a service called Health Corners in partnership with insurers, where patients can access several services such as screenings from registered nurses or pharmacists in-store or through the Walgreens Health app.
Massachusetts made sense for the company, Allemand said, because 40 percent of the Medicare beneficiaries in the state over the age of 65 have four or more chronic conditions. Rather than opening urgent care centers that are more transactional and episodic, there is an opportunity to make a bigger impact, she said.
“It’s a great way to decrease health care costs and improve clinical outcomes,” Allemand said.