Wal-Mart Can Be Our Surprise Salvation: A Two-Part Discussion of the Retail Giant's Health Care Potential

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In America, we have 43 million Americans without health insurance.

Ultimately, the political infighting about our health care crisis isn't the point. The possibility of solving it is. I am as surprised as you might be to believe that the best hope lies with Wal-Mart.

First, a few facts:

  1. All the plans being considered address the needs of the 43 million uninsured, many of whom cannot afford to buy decent insurance.
  2. The goal of all the plans is to change that. People who are currently insured would be able to keep their insurance.
  3. Big insurance companies would no longer be allowed to deny coverage to anyone based on pre-existing conditions. If any one of these bills is passed, anyone in America can buy coverage they can afford. In most of the plans, everyone will be required to have insurance, in order to spread the risk and make it more affordable across the board.
  4. And in several, a public plan -- administered, like Medicare, by the government -- would compete with private insurance.

Sounds good, but the fly in the ointment is the government.

It's no secret that it takes more people and more time to get anything done when the government is involved. Any new agency to administer this expanded health care is bound to be more expensive than anyone can imagine, or at least and less efficient than we dream possible.

Medicare and Medicaid are entrenched. But, we don't have to depend on the government's performance for the proposed new level of insurance for those without coverage. Who, then, can we trust?

Do I believe in the public option?

I do. But I would like to see it delivered by Wal-Mart.

Why do I say this?

At the start of the Clinton administration. a comprehensive health care proposal failed to pass. However, big business was watching, and saw this as a way to create "managed care systems." They believed that doctors were wasting money making decisions based on personal relationships with patients. Any money their "new" model saved, they knew, would be a windfall for their management teams -- and very soon their public stockholders. Soon doctors were signing with these HMO organizations, because they were afraid that they might have no patients otherwise. Time passed. The savings promised by big insurance companies went into their own coffers, not to patients or to those trained in healing the sick or preventing illness. The HMO model has morphed into dozens of acronyms that gave patients less choice for more money. The percentage of our GDP spent on healthcare continued to increase, in spite of the promise of the Holy Grail of managed care.

Big business in the health insurance sector has thrived. CEOs of major health insurance companies have become millionaires many times over. Fewer people could afford insurance and others were uninsurable because of pre-existing conditions and the crisis continued. So we don't want to leave this to Aetna, or Wellpoint, or United Healthcare. Neither do we want a new government bureaucracy.

How can we get the job done? I think there should indeed be a public option: one that builds on Walmart's success, and uses it to give quality care. Here's my dream: One day, I wake up and hear this from the radio news: "Today, Wal-Mart announced a plan for creating a "Walmart Insurance and Care Program," to provide low-cost insurance for basic health care to the uninsured." Wal-Mart could do this with speed and efficiency.

An average-sized Wal-Mart. Not yet authorized to become "Wal-Mart Health Care and Insurance (TM)."
An average-sized Wal-Mart. Not yet authorized to become "Wal-Mart Health Care and Insurance."

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