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Monday July 22nd, 2019 8:58PM

CVS announces further expansion into health care services

By The Associated Press
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CVS Health is pushing deeper into health services with plans to add dietitians, medical equipment and space for the occasional yoga class to 1,500 stores over the next few years.

The drugstore chain that quit selling tobacco several years ago said Tuesday it will expand a store model it recently tested. Its HealthHub stores will have about twice as much space devoted to health care as other locations and will aim to help people with chronic conditions like diabetes.

The expansion comes as rival Walgreens experiments with adding primary care offices and as the U.S. health care system turns its focus to keeping patients healthy instead of waiting to treat them once they become sick. Insurers and other payers have started covering things like dietitian visits with the hope that such care keeps patients out of expensive hospitals.

CVS leaders think the company can play a key role in this movement by making health care routine instead of something people think about only when they visit a doctor.

"The ultimate goal is bring more health services into people's communities where they can access them as part of their daily life," Executive Vice President Dr. Alan Lotvin said.

But the drugstores may face questions about their motive, never mind competition from major doctor groups and hospital systems that have their own support staff working to keep patients healthy.

The management of chronic illnesses has become a big source of health care spending, noted Harvard researcher Dr. Ateev Mehrotra, who has studied retail clinic growth.

"This is sort of the pot at the end of the rainbow that everyone wants to get to," he said.

CVS Health, based in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, runs more than 9,800 retail locations nationally. Late last year, it added health insurance when it acquired one of the nation's biggest insurers, Aetna, in a roughly $69 billion deal that is still being reviewed by a federal judge.

Soon after announcing that deal, CVS officials started talking about plans to provide more health care help to customers.

Aside from visits with dietitians, HealthHub stores also give customers a chance to get screened for eye problems caused by diabetes, talk to a pharmacist about their treatment plan or get help tracking their blood pressure.

The stores reduced space for things like seasonal merchandise in order to add community rooms that can be used for free chair yoga sessions or nutrition classes.

The company started testing the changes in Houston late last year and will add more to that market this year as well as expand to Atlanta, the Philadelphia area and Tampa. CVS officials say they expect to run 1,500 HealthHub stores by the end of 2021.

Separately, Walgreens will start adding primary care clinics next to some of its stores in the Houston area through a partnership with VillageMD. It's also testing clinics in Kansas City that focus on older patients through a partnership with the insurer Humana. The drugstore chain wants to improve access to primary care for its customers, said Walgreens executive Dr. Pat Carroll.

"We have an aging population," he said. "It is difficult in many communities to actually find a primary care physician."

Both Mehrotra, the Harvard researcher, and Dr. Kevin Pho said drugstore services may make it easier for some patients to get help. But they said it is critical for a patient's regular doctor to stay updated on all care, especially if the patient has a few conditions and takes several medications.

Pho, a New Hampshire-based physician, also worries that drugstores may use their health care services to drum up prescription business or sales in the rest of their store.

CVS is offering additional health care in stores many customers already visit routinely and is focused on putting those customers on "a path to better health," Executive Vice President Kevin Hourican said.

Frequent CVS customer Grace Bennett said she thinks the expanded health care services are a "fantastic step."

The 28-year-old New Yorker has diabetes that led to eye surgery. She said screenings for that condition and other health care services available through the drugstores will make it easier for people to get help without having to juggle schedules or worry about finding an open appointment.

"I think they'll be helpful to a whole lot of people," she said

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Follow Tom Murphy on Twitter: @thpmurphy

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The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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