King Soopers jumping on the care clinic bandwagon

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Retail health clinics have received mixed reviews — but that hasn’t stopped King Soopers from opening its first Colorado Springs clinic.

The Little Clinic, part of a national chain of retail clinics, is inside the King Soopers at 23620 Austin Bluffs Parkway. A second clinic is scheduled to open in December.

The clinic is open seven days a week and staffed with licensed and board certified advanced registered nurse practitioners or certified physicians’ assistants. They are authorized to diagnose, treat and write prescriptions for common illnesses: strep throat, respiratory, sinus and ear infections and the flu, as well as for minor skin conditions and injuries.

The clinic also provides services such as physicals, screenings and vaccinations.

Since 2000, nearly 1,000 retail clinics have opened inside pharmacies and grocery stores in the United States. The hope has been that the clinics would improve access to care among the uninsured and underserved, but most of them have been opened in higher-income areas, according to a study by the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

“There has been a rapid rise in the number of retail clinics, but the growth is not evenly distributed across communities,” said Craig Pollack, Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholar at the university. “Poorer neighborhoods are less likely to have access to these clinics.”

The Little Clinic’s purpose is to help busy families, said President Lisa Loscalzo.

“Our clinics provide a convenient, easily accessible and affordable solution for the everyday health needs of busy moms and families, working professionals, small business owners and basically anyone who has to fit health care needs around daily life activities through extended hours, evening and weekend availability,” she said.

The clinic accepts most major insurers and self-paying patients with service prices starting at $59. The Little Clinic manages clinics in 11 states and has locations in Kroger, King Soopers, Fry Food and Publix stores.

Previous research shows that a third of retail clinic patients pay for their visits out of pocket; and more than 60 percent report not having a primary care provider. Some patients choose to pay for after-hours, no-wait care because it’s more convenient. And the new findings suggest that instead of filling an unmet medical need, placing clinics in wealthier neighborhoods shows they act as an adjunct to existing medical care.

Cities concerned about access to care should offer incentives for these clinics to be placed in underserved areas, Pollack said.

“There may be a real opportunity to put up clinics in underserved areas where there’s already supermarket and drug stores,” he said. “By tending to locate in richer neighborhoods, retail clinics may not be meeting their full potential to help address these problems.”

But others argue that the clinics already provide a cheaper alternative than traditional doctors’ visits — keeping people out of the emergency room for minor illnesses and accidents.

Patients without insurance typically pay between $40 and $70, far less than emergency room care. About 40 percent of clinic patients report they would have gone to the emergency room if the clinic hadn’t been readily available.

And retail clinics are beneficial for one group: nurse practitioners, who frequently provide care at the clinics, and have lobbied for greater direct patient care. Nurse practitioners have master’s degrees and are board certified. Research shows they provide care comparable in quality to that provided by primary care doctors.

“With 46 million Americans uninsured, and an alarming disparity in care between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots,’ something has to happen,” said Susan Apold, president of the American College of Nurse Practitioners. “The convenient care industry is one solution that relies on nurse practitioners to meet consumer need. We are eager and ready to step up to the health care table and take a seat. Already making our mark among patients and their families, it is time for the nursing approach, talent and skill to be recognized as the enormous part of the health care solution that we are. The convenient care industry realizes this. Now it’s time for the rest of the nation to embrace it as well.”

Amy Gillentine covers health care for the Colorado Springs Business Journal.