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Health Care & Insurance

Checkups on the Run

Retail kiosks offer routine services at a fraction of physician prices.

Your child wakes up with an earache -- and you take him to Target. You suspect your nagging cough may signal bronchitis, so you have it checked -- at Wal-Mart. You don't need an appointment for either visit, the cost is a fraction of what you would have paid if you had cooled your heels in your doctor's office all morning, and your insurance might even cover it.

Walk-in clinics are coming soon to a retailer, pharmacy or grocery store near you. Minneapolis-based MinuteClinic, the country's largest chain of retail clinics, expects to have 250 facilities in 20 states by year-end.

Customers appreciate the convenience of one-stop shopping. Stores get a boost in sales of drugs and other health-related products. And patients and insurers save money as routine care, which accounts for one-fourth of U.S. health spending, moves out of doctor's offices and into settings with lower overhead.

At express medical clinics, one nurse practitioner usually runs the whole operation, from reception to diagnosis to prescription. A visit takes about 15 minutes per patient.


Retail clinics put a clear price tag on your health care. RediClinic, with kiosks in three Wal-Marts, charges a flat fee of $45 for all its basic services. A sore-throat checkup with a strep test costs $62 at a Minneapolis MinuteClinic, compared with $109 at a doctor's office, $125 at an urgent-care center and $406 at an emergency room, according to the Minnesota Council of Health Plans.

Clinics generally accept cash and major credit cards. You can be reimbursed with money you've contributed to an employer-sponsored flexible-spending account or to a health savings account, and now some health insurers are picking up the tab.

MinuteClinic, for example, has signed agreements with Aetna, Cigna and UnitedHealthcare. If you're covered by one of those insurers, you'll pay your plan's co-payment rather than the full cost of the clinic visit. Some employers, including Best Buy, Black & Decker and Carlson Cos., offer lower co-payments to encourage employees to use MinuteClinics.

Retail clinics generally won't treat children younger than 18 months old. If you're on multiple medications or are older than 65, it's better to visit an urgent-care center or your doctor's office. If you have chest pain, head straight for the emergency room.

Have questions about using a clinic? "Call your family doctor," advises Larry Fields, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians. "It's free."