CHICAGO, Feb 24 (Reuters) Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which has been facing fierce criticism over employee benefits, said on Thursday it will open more than 50 in-store health clinics this year and make further changes to workers' health-care plans.
Run by third parties, the clinics are open to shoppers and employees, and are staffed by doctors who can treat non-emergency illnesses such as strep throat. Costs average between and per visit, Wal-Mart spokeswoman Mona Williams said.
Wal-Mart said many of the patients who used the clinics in an initial nine-store pilot were uninsured, and would have gone to a hospital emergency room to be treated instead.
The national average cost for a doctor's visit is about , while an emergency room visit averages 3, according to insurer BlueCross BlueShield. More than 40 million Americans have no insurance, and often turn to emergency rooms for care.
The world's biggest retailer said Chief Executive Officer Lee Scott will detail the health-care changes in a speech about health care to the national Governors Association Winter Meeting in Washington on Sunday.
Wal-Mart said in a statement that Scott would call for government and business to work together to solve the problem of rising health-care costs.
''The soaring cost of health care in America cannot be sustained over the long term by any business that offers health benefits to its employees,'' Scott's speech says, according to excerpts provided in the statement.
Wal-Mart has been severely criticised over its health-care benefits. Critics contend the plans cost too much for many of Wal-Mart's low-income employees, who turn to government aid instead. Wal-Mart is the largest U.S. private sector employer with about 1.3 million U.S. workers.
CRITICS SCEPTICAL The retailer began offering a lower-priced insurance plan last year, and said the plan would be expanded to cover at least half of its employees by next year.
Scott will announce plans to allow part-time employees to enroll their children in the company's health-care plan -- something only full-time employees can do now -- and cut the period of time that part-time workers must wait before becoming eligible for health care. They currently must wait two years.
Some critics were sceptical of the changes.
Andrew Grossman, executive director of Wal-Mart Watch, which has been pressuring Wal-Mart to improve benefits, called the lower-cost insurance plan ''a raw deal for its employees who can't afford the high deductibles and strict eligibility requirements.
''Wal-Mart Watch has long been calling upon Wal-Mart to embrace its role in helping solve this nation's health-care problems,'' he said in a statement.
''We hope that as Lee Scott calls for a 'new commitment from leaders in government and business', he will first acknowledge that his own corporation's woeful health benefits are a unique contributor to this nation's crisis.'' Bentonville, Arkansas-based Wal-Mart also plans to expand a test of health-care clinics in its stores, and will open more than 50 this year. It currently has a total of nine clinics in stores in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Florida and India.
The clinics are operated by third parties who lease space from Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart said three clinics in Arkansas treated more than 4,300 patients in the first six months.
Of those treated, nearly two-thirds were women ages 25-49, nearly half were uninsured, and almost 20 per cent said they would have gone to the emergency room.
Patients can walk in without an appointment, and shop while waiting to be seen by a doctor. In some stores, a pager similar to those used at restaurants informs patients when the doctor is ready.
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