Wal­mart is ex­pand­ing its vir­tu­al care ben­e­fits na­tion­al­ly af­ter see­ing it re­duced health­care costs by 11%

(This sto­ry is from our new Health Tech newslet­ter. If you’d like to sign up, just click here.)

Wal­mart is go­ing to give all of its US em­ploy­ees ac­cess to a vir­tu­al care pro­gram that it pi­lot­ed over the last sev­er­al years af­ter find­ing that it led to a mean­ing­ful re­duc­tion in health costs.

The pro­gram, run by vir­tu­al care and nav­i­ga­tion com­pa­ny In­clud­ed Health, of­fer of­fers Wal­mart em­ploy­ees vir­tu­al care ben­e­fits like pri­ma­ry care and some spe­cial­ty care like phys­i­cal ther­a­py or at-home lab test­ing for a $0 co­pay.

Owen Tripp

The pro­gram ex­pand­ed from a hand­ful of states to more than 20 in a pi­lot phase over the last three years. Dur­ing that time, Wal­mart has seen an 11% re­duc­tion in its health­care costs and a 38% re­duc­tion in hos­pi­tal costs for those em­ploy­ees, In­clud­ed Health CEO Owen Tripp and Lisa Woods, Wal­mart’s vice pres­i­dent of well­be­ing told End­points News on the side­lines of the HLTH con­fer­ence in Las Ve­gas.

Wal­mart last year spent $6 bil­lion on health­care for the 1 mil­lion em­ploy­ees and de­pen­dents who it cov­ers, Bloomberg re­port­ed.

Woods and Tripp shared the re­sults of the pi­lot on­stage at the con­fer­ence on Tues­day. Woods said ahead of the pre­sen­ta­tion that she hoped to let oth­er em­ploy­ers know that they, too, can save mon­ey while pro­vid­ing more com­pre­hen­sive care.

“In­no­va­tion is hard,” Woods said. “But if you stay at it, these are the kind of re­sults that you get.”

Find­ing ways to low­er health­care costs while im­prov­ing ac­cess

Em­ploy­ers cov­er the health costs of near­ly 160 mil­lion Amer­i­cans. Many, like Wal­mart, are self-in­sured, mean­ing they’re on the hook for the med­ical spend­ing of their em­ploy­ees. Wal­mart, for its part, has over the years found ways to low­er its health­care spend­ing through pro­grams like its long-run­ning Cen­ters of Ex­cel­lence pro­gram, in which Wal­mart pays for em­ploy­ees to trav­el and get pro­ce­dures like a hip re­place­ment done. Its in­tent is to pro­vide bet­ter care at a low­er cost.

Lisa Woods

Wal­mart start­ed work­ing with In­clud­ed Health — the name of the health­care up­start giv­en when Grand Rounds and Doc­tor on De­mand merged in 2021 — in 2016, of­fer­ing vir­tu­al care ser­vices for ur­gent-care-like ap­point­ments for con­di­tions like sore throats and ear in­fec­tions. Over time, Wal­mart added ther­a­py and got pos­i­tive re­spons­es from its em­ploy­ees, Woods said.

That led to a vir­tu­al pri­ma­ry care launch in Jan­u­ary 2020 (pre­scient tim­ing ahead of a mas­sive uptick in vir­tu­al care). It start­ed with three states be­fore grow­ing to 21 states as of 2023 be­fore Tues­day’s an­nounce­ment. By prov­ing that the pro­gram could low­er Wal­mart’s health­care spend­ing by 11% over the course of the pi­lot, Tripp said the two or­ga­ni­za­tions have found a recipe they want more peo­ple to know about as a way to low­er health­care costs.

“There’s been this trade-off of, ‘The on­ly way we make it less ex­pen­sive is we make it re­al­ly puni­tive for you to af­ford it. We’re go­ing to do these nasty things like dri­ve, high coin­sur­ance, we’re go­ing to make it im­pos­si­ble for you to ob­tain care,’” Tripp said. “Or you say, maybe we shift the way care is de­liv­ered. And we say that vir­tu­al care ac­tu­al­ly, at its cost point, can be a dif­fer­ent way of think­ing about ac­cess to pri­ma­ry care.”