By HIROKO TABUCHI | JULY 11, 2015
Michael Gaffney’s throat was scratchy for days, and lemon tea was not helping. So he dropped into a MinuteClinic above a CVS store in Midtown Manhattan on a lunch break. Within minutes, a nurse practitioner tested him for strep throat (negative), suggested lozenges and a regimen (ample fluids, no spicy food), collected a co-payment ($25 cash) and sent him on his way.
“That was quick,” said Mr. Gaffney, 26, an account executive for Indeed.com, who, like millions of Americans, does not have a primary care physician, even though he is covered by health insurance. He has been meaning to find a doctor since moving to New York last year, but his sore throat did not seem serious enough to warrant what was sure to be a time-consuming search and a long wait for an appointment.
The CVS MinuteClinic, on the other hand, was just blocks away from his office. “I waited longer for my bagel this morning,” he said.
With 7,800 retail stores and a presence in almost every state, CVS Health has enormous reach. And while shoppers might think of CVS as a place to pick up toothpaste, Band-Aids or lipstick, it is also the country’s biggest operator of health clinics, the largest dispenser of prescription drugs and the second-largest pharmacy benefits manager. With close to $140 billion in revenue last year — about 97 percent of that from prescription drugs or pharmacy services — CVS is arguably the country’s biggest health care company, bigger than the drug makers and wholesalers, and bigger than the insurers.
Even before the Affordable Care Act created millions of newly insured customers in the almost $3 trillion health care industry, CVS saw that there were more profits to be made handling prescription drugs than selling diapers. But while its transformation from drugstore to health care company began a decade ago, CVS has more recently taken on a new advocacy role, that of a public enemy of cigarettes.
Last year, CVS became the first major pharmacy chain to stop selling tobacco, a business that brought in $2 billion a year. And on Tuesday, CVS said that it would resign from the United States Chamber of Commerce after revelations that the chamber and its foreign affiliates were engaged in a global lobbying campaign against antismoking laws.
Its stand against smoking has allowed CVS to make alliances with health care providers and rebrand itself fully as a health care company. But with smoking rates on a steady decline, and cigarettes sales slumping, CVS also saw that future profits lie not with Big Tobacco but in health and wellness.
Taking the high road for health has its challenges. For one thing, it means new competitors in a rapidly changing industry. And, for a major retailer with tens of thousands of products on its shelves, it leads to an uncomfortable question: If we cannot sell cigarettes, what does that mean for potato chips?
Road to Growth
The Consumer Value Store started as a scrappy discount health and beauty outlet in Lowell, Mass., in 1963. Four years later, the small chain opened its first in-store pharmacies, and those became the core of the company — and its growth — for years. Larry Merlo, the chief executive, is a pharmacist by training and came into the company when it bought People’s Drug, a drugstore chain based in a suburb of Washington.
In a phone interview, Mr. Merlo spoke mostly in corporate platitudes, but when the conversation turned to the subject of pharmacists, he spoke passionately about pharmacists’ role in delivering health care.
“Hypertension, diabetes, osteoporosis,” he said. “It’s the same story — people don’t take their medication as prescribed.”
Pharmacists, who see patients more frequently than doctors do, can make sure patients stay on their drug regimens, he said, keeping them out of the hospital and saving the health care system billions of dollars down the road.
“I think back to my own personal experience,” he said. “Sometimes, it’s as simple as answering questions to get people to stay on their prescription therapies.”
Mr. Merlo said the company stood out in the breadth of products and services it offered: Its MinuteClinics diagnose and treat patients, and its pharmacies dispense medicine to more than two million prescriptions a day. It negotiates the price of medicines and helps 65 million people navigate drug coverage under their insurance plans.
The shift toward health care started in 2004, when CVS acquired Eckerd Stores and Eckerd Health Services, giving CVS a foothold in administering drug benefits to employees of big corporations and government agencies. Two years later, CVS acquired MinuteClinic, a pioneering in-store health clinic chain that was offering treatment for routine illnesses, basic screenings and vaccinations. CVS also expanded its very profitable specialty pharmacy business, which focuses on expensive drugs to treat complex or rare diseases like cancer or H.I.V.