Retail clinic offers free care to recently unemployed

However, since Take Care's offer is limited to slow times of the day, some wonder whether it is mostly a bid to build a customer base.

By Pamela Lewis Dolan — Posted April 13, 2009

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The Walgreen Co. and its subsidiary Take Care Health Systems are offering free care at all 342 Take Care Clinics through the end of the year for patients who have lost their jobs and their health insurance.

However, the deal comes with conditions that address the struggles of getting people into the door outside of evenings and flu and cold season.

The Take Care Recovery Plan offers unemployed, uninsured people free care from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Friday. The offer extends to families, dependents and same-sex domestic partners of those who have lost their jobs and benefits after March 30.

The company admits the weekday hours are low-volume times, but says it is looking at that low-volume time as an opportunity to address a need. Critics, however, view it as a way to get customers in the door, with the hope that they spend money on other things.

"I'm struggling with this a little bit in terms of the disingenuousness of it," said Ted Epperly, MD, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians. "On the one hand, I appreciate the effort, but on the other hand, it just smacks me about what is the real agenda."

Take Care spokeswoman Lauren Nestler said by offering the free service during low-volume times, patients won't be met with long lines on weekends or in the evenings.

"With any offer there are terms and conditions and start dates ... but we really believe this is a compelling way to meet the needs of our patients and their families ... in a streamlined effective way that can be balanced with the everyday paying patients that we are seeing seven days a week, nights and weekends," Nestler said.

Take Care Clinics are looked at by industry insiders as a retail clinic chain that has figured out how to address low-volume times, a problem that has been one of the reasons many clinics have struggled financially.

Minneapolis-based Minute Clinic, owned by CVS Caremark, announced recently it was closing 16% of its stores for the summer because of low volume. Take Care said it used that announcement as an opportunity to reiterate its commitment to keep its clinics open year-round, something it is able to do thanks to work site clinics from which the retail clinics can draw patients and additional revenue.

"What I hope would be that [Take Care] is not going to take [patients] to the cleaner when it comes to the prescribed drug that they'll get -- that hopefully the patient will be smart enough to take it right outside the Walgreens down to the Wal-Mart so that they are paying $4," said Dr. Epperly. "That's where the loss-leader is coming. They are getting them in the door to get medications and other retail goods. This is a business. They know what they are doing. But I do applaud them for taking some action."

The offer for free care does not include prescriptions. It does, however, cover tests conducted by Take Care's contracted lab, Quest Diagnostics.

To qualify for the free care, an individual must have lost his or her job on or after March 31 and must be an existing patient of Take Care. A qualification process will require patients to show their federal or state unemployment determination letter along with verification of unemployment payments prior to their visit.

Joseph M. Heyman, MD, chair of the AMA Board of Trustees, called Take Care's services a "viable option for treating certain episodic health problems like strep throat, poison ivy and the common cold." But, for more serious conditions, patients should see a physician, he said.

It's unclear if other retail clinic chains will make similar offers. A growing number of primary care physicians have decided to offer free care to their existing patients during the tough economic times.

Dr. Epperly thinks this is a great idea, but said free care is an option most primary care doctors can't currently afford. Instead, he said, several are offering fees based on a sliding scale.

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