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Sam's Club launches health care pilot to members

Starting in three states, members will be able to buy health care services ranging in annual fees from $50 for individuals to $240 for a family.

NEW YORK — Walmart's Sam's Club is teaming up with several health care companies to offer discounts on everyday care its customers might delay or skip because of the cost.

Starting early October, Sam's Club members in Michigan, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, will be able to buy one of four bundles of health care services ranging in annual fees from $50 for individuals to $240 for a family of up to six members. The pilot program could potentially be rolled out to members in all the states, says Lori Flees, senior vice president of Sam's Club Health and Wellness.

The move comes as health care expenses place a growing strain on the budgets of many families and individuals, even those that have coverage. Sam's Club emphasized that the new initiative is not a health insurance plan but a discount health program that can supplement insurance and bring down out-of-pocket costs.

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Annual deductibles for single coverage in employer-sponsored health plans have doubled over the past decade and now average $1,655 among plans that have deductibles, according to the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation. These deductibles, which a patient has to pay before most coverage starts, can be much higher for families and for individual plans purchased outside an employer.

Sam's Club says its program is designed to cater to members — individuals, business owners and families who are delaying or skipping basic care because of high deductibles.

"We are lowering the barrier for people to take care of themselves," Flees said.

Each bundle offers savings on dental services with a network of providers through the health insurer Humana as well as unlimited telehealth for $1 per visit through a Seattle-based company called 98point6. The bundles also offer discounted vision exams and optical products, and free prescriptions on certain generic medications. The number of free generics range from 5 to 20 of the most popular medications, depending on what the member chooses.

For example, the family bundle, at $240 per year includes access to a preventative lab screening that measures health indicators like diabetes, up to a 30% discount on chiropractic, massage therapy and acupuncture services and a 10% discount on hearing aids. Each bundle also offers prepaid health debit cards to be used within the health services network.

With this program, Sam's Club will be introducing customers to a new form of care from 98point6 where patients can be diagnosed and treated without talking to or seeing the doctor. Patients who click on the 98point6 app first tell their symptoms to a chatbot or automated assistant that uses artificial intelligence. The information then get passed along to a doctor for diagnosis and treatment, often just through secure messaging. Video and phone conversations also are available through this service if needed.

Insurers and many employers like Walmart and Amazon have been touting video telemedicine visits as a way to give their employers or customers fast, convenient access to help. But benefits experts say people have been slow to start using the new technology. Some forget about it because they may not have a need until long after they learn about it.

Flees says that Sam's Club will be offering both video and text services to its members. She acknowledged that usage of telemedicine has been slow.

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