Fashion forward: Vision Centers blend cutting-edge technology, style
Which U.S. company fits more Americans with glasses and contact lenses than any other? That would be Walmart, which also happens to operate the largest chain of vision centers in the country.
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Vision centers are a huge facet of Walmart’s front-store business — and to the company’s position as a health-and-wellness destination. “Walmart has been helping customers manage their eyesight for more than 20 years,” and is “the largest seller of eyeglasses in the United States,” said Carmen Bauza, SVP baby, paper goods, chemicals, OTC and optical for Walmart U.S. “We are currently working to grow and expand our optical business to meet our customers’ needs.”
The company is also “the largest manufacturer of glasses in the United States,” noted Labeed Diab, president of health-and-wellness for Walmart U.S., with production facilities in Fayetteville, Ark.; Houston, Texas; and Crawfordsville, Ind. It also outsources eyewear manufacturing to two facilities in Mexico, in partnership with Essilor and Zeiss.
“It is in these labs where Walmart … prescription eyewear is manufactured,” Bauza explained. The lab in Arkansas near Walmart headquarters, she added, is the largest production plant for corrective eyewear in the world.
Walmart hosts leased and company-owned Vision Centers in some 3,000 of its Supercenters and discount stores, including some 2,900 centers operated independently by optometrists who lease space from the company within the centers. In addition, Walmart owns roughly 100 in-store optical centers in nine states in the mid-Atlantic, Midwestern and Southwestern regions of the country, where the company itself employs doctors of optometry or ophthalmologists.
At all 3,000 of its Vision Centers, “it’s important to offer choice to our customers,” Bauza said. “Our new eyewear brands provide a good, better, best assortment, giving our customers the freedom to choose the frames that best meet their eyewear needs at an everyday low price.”
In addition, she added, “Walmart also offers exclusive cutting-edge lens technology that provides additional comfort and enhanced acuity.”
In all, “Walmart customers can choose from more than 1,000 frames for the entire family,” said Bauza, including a recently launched brand of eyewear exclusive to Walmart, called Hard Candy.
“The customer is changing, which is driving the changes in our business,” Bauza pointed out. “In the past, the optical business was viewed as a medical need. Today the optical business has become a fashion business with medical benefits.”
Behind the changes are younger generations of style-conscious consumers, Bauza noted. “Industry growth is coming primarily from millennial and Gen-X segments, as they view frames and sunglasses as a fashion accessory to enhance their image and complement their wardrobe,” Bauza explained. Nevertheless, she said, “We are currently working to diversify and expand our assortment to meet the needs of not only fashion-forward millennials but also the aging population.”
Indeed, says Bauza, growth in the vision category is also coming from contact lenses, which “are resurging as laser correction dissipates.”
Bringing transparency to health insurance
Why would Walmart launch an insurance education service for the 140 million Americans who shop its stores each week? For one thing, because more than 60% of Americans have a tough time understanding their health insurance plan options, according to research from the Kaiser Family Foundation, and nearly 40% feel that they picked the wrong plan after enrolling.
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Those troubling statistics helped spur the creation of Healthcare Begins Here, an in-store program to educate customers at Walmart pharmacies about their health insurance options and the benefits and costs of one plan over another. Walmart teamed up with DirectHealth.com to provide the service.
“For years, our customers have told us that there is too much complexity when it comes to understanding their health insurance options,” said Labeed Diab, president of health-and-wellness for Walmart U.S. “Healthcare Begins Here addresses that complexity by bringing clarity and increased choice to the insurance enrollment process through DirectHealth.com.”
DirectHealth is an online health insurance comparison site and independent licensed health insurance agency that helps Walmart customers gain access to health insurance information and enrollment support. The company also arranges for licensed insurance agents to temporarily locate at some 2,700 of its pharmacies to educate customers directly on their coverage options, and to “enroll in the plan that is right for them,” said Marcus Osborne, VP health-and-wellness payer relations for Walmart U.S., “whether that be a Medicare plan or Public Healthcare Exchange plan through online, phone and in-store services.”
The DirectHealth website is operated by TZ Insurance Solutions LLC, which is also the agency licensed to sell health insurance in all 50 states on behalf of DirectHealth. Walmart serves as the company’s marketing partner.
Walmart customers have had in-store access to health insurance information since 2005, when the company began hosting “insurance agents from individual insurers in stores to answer questions and enroll customers in specific healthcare plans,” Osborne said. However, he told DSN, “Healthcare Begins Here, through DirectHealth.com, takes this offering to the next level in response to customers who want more options to choose from.”
The education and enrollment process in Walmart stores is “timed to open enrollment” in the fall for Medicare, and from mid-November to mid-February for the health insurance marketplace open enrollment period.
“For customers over 65,” Walmart reports, “DirectHealth.com offers access to more than 1,700 plans from 12 leading carriers, including Aetna, Cigna, Humana, UnitedHealthcare and participating Blue Cross and Blue Shield companies. For customers under the age of 65, DirectHealth.com offers access to thousands of Health Exchange plans from more than 300 leading carriers.”
Customers can compare and enroll in health plans online at DirectHealth.com or over the phone.
The program has been an unqualified hit, Osborne said. “We have received great feedback from our customers on the Healthcare Begins Here program and DirectHealth.com resource,” he noted. “While we can’t share specific numbers, we can say the number of enrollments exceeded our expectations.”
“DirectHealth.com is not designed for our associates. The healthcare plans we offer our associates are among the best in the retail industry,” Osborne added.
Walmart eyes bigger role in specialty Rx
While building a 4,500-store retail pharmacy powerhouse in the United States, Walmart also has kept pace with the specialty pharmacy revolution and is positioning itself to play a stronger role in this most innovative, dynamic and complex area of pharmaceutical R&D and bioengineering.
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“We have our own in-house specialty pharmacy in Florida, and we feel there’s still a tremendous opportunity to scale this business,” declared Labeed Diab, president of health-and-wellness for Walmart U.S. “Whether that means we grow organically, through a partnership or through acquisition — we’re looking at all of the above.”
Behind Walmart’s determination to stake a bigger claim to the specialty market is a simple fact: “The traditional prescription drug business is pretty much stagnant over the next five years, but that specialty business is growing at 25%,” Diab said.
Based in Orlando, Fla., Walmart Specialty Pharmacy is “a URAC-accredited services provider licensed to distribute specialty medications to all 50 states,” explained VP pharmaceutical merchandising for Walmart U.S. Mark Phillips. The pharmacy is staffed by “a team of experts” who manage “the entire patient journey — from onboarding, benefits investigations and prior authorizations to financial assistance, educational training and fulfillment,” he added.
“Our specialty pharmacy offers a team of pharmacists, nurses and insurance experts dedicated to providing clinical and educational support 24/7 to help customers understand and achieve their treatment goals,” Phillips said. “We also help customers with their insurance claims,” along with “reimbursement assistance for a variety of insurance programs, including Medicare Part B, Medicaid, split-billing patient assistance programs and more.”
The focus for the Orlando-based service center is to make it “easy and convenient for our customers to get their specialty medications, offering services online, at their local store or by phone,” Phillips said. Walmart offers temperature-controlled, free overnight shipping of all medications and supplies, and “customers in the Orlando area can also pick up their prescriptions at our specialty pharmacy location,” he added.
Among the many serious conditions that Walmart’s specialty pharmacists help patients manage are anemia, cancer, Crohn’s disease, cystic fibrosis, hepatitis, HIV/AIDS and infertility.
Beyond that, the company has developed “Centers of Excellence” within select Walmart pharmacies nationwide, focused on core areas, including oncology, viral infections, inflammatory conditions and multiple sclerosis, Phillips told DSN. Those centers are staffed by “dedicated teams of pharmacists, clinicians and techs to manage the entire patient experience,” he said.