The Supply Side: Walmart’s mobile pharmacy part of a growing health agenda

by Kim Souza ([email protected]) 1,408 views 

Big Blue, a fully functional mobile pharmacy, has been deployed nine times to Walmart stores affected by disaster or fire. The mobile unit is run by four Walmart pharmacists who volunteer for service.

In 2018, Walmart launched its Big Blue mobile pharmacy to travel to areas hit by disasters or fire and set up shop, filling prescriptions and seeing customers in the impacted communities. Since 2018 Big Blue has been used nine times.

The mobile unit is a fully functional pharmacy that takes about 30 minutes to set up once on site. The sides of the trailer expand, and there is enough space for two pharmacists and a couple of techs to work. It also has a waiting room, interview room and restrooms.

David Barnard joined Walmart as a pharmacist in Deland, Fla., about five years ago. He first volunteered to work with Big Blue during Hurricane Florence in September 2018. In 2020, he took a special assignment with Walmart Realty to help provide feedback on improving pharmacy processes and systems. He is also one of four pharmacists who take Big Blue on the road when the store pharmacy is out of commission.

Walmart operates 4,600 pharmacies in its U.S. stores, and 4,000 of them are in medically underserved areas, according to Dr. Soujanya Pulluru, vice president of clinical operations and virtual health services at Walmart.

Barnard has been on three of the nine Big Blue missions. He said the mobile pharmacy is set up like the store it is replacing. From a photo of the store pharmacy, Bernard can order the exact drugs from the distributor delivered onsite. He said Big Blue holds around $300,000 of inventory. Barnard said the mobile unit stocks the drugs the pharmacy it’s replacing dispenses the most often. The mobile pharmacy can fill 300 prescriptions per day.

Big Blue has a refrigerated case for insulin and other cold meds. Barnard said there is a group at Walmart that works to get Big Blue operational when it’s needed. He said compliance works to ensure he is licensed to work in whatever state needs the service. Big Blue is delivered to the disaster site by Walmart driver Wyatt Jepsen who made the haul with Barnard following Hurricane Ida in August 2021.

Walmart said Barnard was in Galliano, La., for 12 days operating the pharmacy following Ida. Barnard said emergency meds were distributed, and the team administered COVID vaccines, flu vaccines, and tetanus shots and provided blood pressure meds and insulin for diabetics.

“Big Blue stayed open until everyone was served each day,” Barnard said. “We also served the needs of those in the community who were not Walmart customers then. There was one man in Galliano who needed insulin for his young son, and through the emergency protocol, I was able to get it for him. He is now a Walmart customer.”

Because the computers used in Big Blue are linked to store records, the scripts on file can easily be seen by customers. But for non-Walmart customers, the emergency protocol allows a pharmacist to dispense medications when the customers can prove they have a prescription for the drug, Barnard explained.

Walmart said the scope of its 4,600-plus pharmacists continues to expand, especially in medically underserved rural areas. While laws vary from state to state, pharmacists can perform tests and sometimes provide treatments for illnesses like strep throat and the flu.

Barnard said Big Blue is a life-saver for communities hit by disaster, often leaving many without electricity, and their medicine can be scattered and unusable. He said Big Blue is not handicap accessible, but those customers are served through curbside pickup.

Big Blue is based in Bentonville. Barnard is back as the pharmacy manager at Store No. 2944 in Deland but said he’s ready to go the next time Big Blue is needed.

Walmart Health also focuses on providing access to care for a particular disease or ailment. The first area is HIV because one in three Americans with HIV don’t have access to care and, in many cases, doesn’t even know they have it. The initiative educates, tests and provides access to treatment for those with HIV.

Pulluru, who spoke recently at a healthcare innovation event in Bentonville, said Walmart is expanding its health initiative to include more clinics, virtual health, clinical trials and holistic and affordable healthcare to the underserved across America.

Since 2019 and the launch of Walmart Health clinics, the retail giant has opened 41 clinics that provide primary and urgent care, labs, x-ray and diagnostics, behavioral health, dental optometry and hearing services. Pulluru said Walmart plans to nearly double the number of clinics it runs by the end of 2024.

Walmart also offers virtual healthcare through its clinics. In May 2022, Walmart acquired telehealth provider MeMD and rebranded the service as Walmart Virtual Health Care providing telehealth services for medical and behavioral care.

Walmart Health also offers discounted virtual urgent care for patients with UnitedHealthcare insurance. Those services include treatments for colds, flu and other minor illnesses. The cost of that virtual appointment is $49 or less, Walmart said.

Pulluru oversees Walmart’s virtual care services. She said the pandemic brought to light the full potential for virtual care and expanded the scope of care offered by pharmacists and other practitioners, given the growing shortage of physicians. She said 40,000 physicians left their practices in 2020, and many areas still struggle to have enough doctors delivering primary care.

“We see healthcare being delivered by a team that includes our pharmacists who stepped up during the pandemic to administer COVID tests and a host of vaccines and immunizations. Healthcare does not have to only be delivered by a doctor,” Pulluru said.

As a former practicing physician for 15 years in the Chicago area, Pulluru said she came to Walmart because of the scope and reach Walmart has in rural America to improve access and affordability of healthcare. Her love for treating the underserved is rooted in her childhood trips to India with her father, a doctor.

“He went to rural villages where hundreds lined up to see him,” Pulluru recalled. “He screened them for disease and vaccinated them; he treated them for ailments often without pay. They stood in line all day to get the care. I could see the vulnerability and desperation for healthcare in their eyes. I was fortunate to immigrate to the U.S. as an 8-year-old, and I wanted to become a doctor to help the underserved. With Walmart, I believe we can make a difference in communities with a transparent and affordable primary, urgent and chronic care model.”

Editor’s note: The Supply Side section of Talk Business & Politics focuses on the companies, organizations, issues and individuals engaged in providing products and services to retailers. The Supply Side is managed by Talk Business & Politics and sponsored by Propak Logistics.