How Walmart Health's closure could affect dental patients

The closure of Walmart's health centers could leave behind a gap in care for dental patients, according to Bryan Carey, CEO of Atlanta-based DSO Benevis. 

Walmart announced April 30 that it would close all 51 of its Walmart Health centers across five states, signaling the end of its dental care offerings. The company cited "the challenging reimbursement environment and escalating operating costs" which created a lack of profitability and created an unsustainable business model. 

Several healthcare leaders told Becker's they were not surprised by the closures due to the economic challenges facing the healthcare industry, such as low reimbursements and inflation, as well as the difficulty of providing primary care at scale. 

Several dental industry leaders have shared similar sentiments regarding the economic challenges facing the dental industry. Janet Hagerman, a dental industry consultant, said she was not surprised by the news because of the company's pricing model.

"What this leaves is a lot of folks in need of good, fairly priced dental care," Hagerman said on LinkedIn. "While discount dentistry is never a good idea, this does present an opportunity for dental professionals to help patients understand the value of dentistry so we can care for their needs."

Mr. Carey recently spoke with Becker's about what these closures mean for the healthcare industry and dental care accessibility.

Editor's note: Responses were lightly edited for clarity and length.

Question: What was your initial reaction to Walmart's announcement?

Bryan Carey: [I was] just really disappointed in terms of the impact to the patients and the communities. We were really pleased to see Walmart's entry and expansion because there are plenty of beneficiaries, particularly of Medicaid, who need access to care and that idea of being co-located with other things that are part of their life is a great model. Roughly speaking, with 50 plus locations, there are hundreds and thousands of patients who will be looking for continuity of care. 

We all know healthcare has real challenges between reimbursements, labor shortages and the need with these communities to have access and availability that works for them. My own sense is that it was probably just too early to try to pull this off. So many of us strongly believe the integration of healthcare and oral health has incredible benefits, but it's just not there yet in terms of sharing a record, sharing care, and if that is part of the model, it's going to take a while for that to be able to be something that's viable and sustainable. 

Q: Knowing the factors that contributed to Walmart's decision to close its health centers, what do you think that says about the current state of the healthcare industry?

BC: Ultimately, the issue is reimbursement has not kept pace with labor costs. I know that, ultimately, stakeholders understand that. I think it is a very solid example of how the lack of reimbursement keeping pace with labor costs will reduce access and availability unless it's addressed. 

Q: How can DSOs step in to fill the dental care gap left behind by these closures?

BC: All of us can grow our access and availability. What does that mean? For us, it means more evening hours and more weekends because to try to provide continuity of care for displaced patients, we're going to have to be able to create more appointments. That's been our focus because we are in a couple of states, [such as] Georgia and Texas, where there have been Walmart health and dental centers. We are looking to see how we can increase appointment availability because we know there will be patients in need of care. 

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