Posted by: audreybenenati | February 10, 2010

Health reform already under way: Walgreen CEO

Julie Steenhuysen and Jessica Wohl

Tue Feb 9, 2010 6:41pm EST

CHICAGO (Reuters) – Even if nothing comes of health reform efforts in Washington, healthcare in America is changing as consumers and companies take new steps to cut their health costs, the chief executive of Walgreen Co (WAG.N) said on Tuesday.

U.S. President Barack Obama on Tuesday pushed for an end to "partisan wrangling" that has stalled efforts to overhaul the U.S. healthcare system.

But Greg Wasson, who became chief executive of Walgreen a year ago, said companies have already begun taking up the reform cause out of a need to control their own health costs.

"Regardless of what comes out, the horse is out of the barn. Reform is occurring in this country today," Wasson said in an exclusive interview.

"I’ve supported the president’s goal of health reform. I do think we need health reform in this country, but what is exciting me is what is taking place already and the opportunity we have to play a role in that," Wasson said.

With drug stores located in communities across the country — many of which are equipped with in-store health clinics — Walgreen has been busy transforming itself from a dispenser of drugs to a community health provider.

"Our center of gravity is our community drug stores," Wasson said.

He said the H1N1 swine flu pandemic offered the company a way to expand its role as a health provider by giving out seasonal and H1N1 flu vaccines through its thousands of pharmacists and some 350 Take Care health clinics.

Walgreen has dispensed roughly 7.5 million seasonal and swine flu shots since September, up from just 1.2 million shots in the prior flu season.


Wasson said the flu shot program helped the company build bridges with the Department of Health and Human Services, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as state and local health agencies.

"I think the government, as they become a bigger payer of healthcare in the country, certainly is going to be a focus of ours," he said.

And he sees opportunity at the state government level as well. "The states across the country are challenged. One of the things I think we can do is work with states to help reduce their cost of Medicaid. We could offer convenient, low-cost healthcare through our clinics," he said.

The company is also eager to attract consumers looking for services on their own. Earlier this month, Walgreens stores offered free diabetes testing after a related segment on the Oprah Winfrey Show, which prompted more than 100,000 people to get their blood sugar checked, many for the first time.

"What that tells us is we are skating to where the puck will be, which is more emphasis on health and wellness and prevention and management of chronic disease. And real reform is taking place," he said.

Wasson, who started as a pharmacy intern and worked his way up, said the company plans to take advantage of its 7,160 locations in a bid to reshape itself as a health provider.

How that looks may vary according to the needs of the community.

For example, in some urban stores in places like Chicago that have so-called food deserts — in which fresh foods are scarce and overpriced — the company is expanding its fresh foods offerings to include fruits and vegetables even as it brings back beer and wine and continues to stock tobacco.

(Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen, editing by Matthew Lewis)


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