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story.lead_photo.caption A Walmart logo is displayed outside of a Walmart store on Sept. 3 in Walpole, Mass. Walmart says it will stop selling electronic cigarettes at its namesake stores and Sam's Clubs following a string of illnesses and deaths related to vaping. The nation's largest retailer said Friday that it will complete its exit from e-cigarettes after selling through current inventory. It cited growing federal, state and local regulatory complexity regarding vaping products. - AP Photo/Steven Senne, File

Walmart Inc. has added college degrees in health and wellness to its education benefit program that lets workers earn degrees and certification at a cost of $1 a day. The Bentonville retailer said Tuesday that the new options will give employees a path to careers in health care as its own health and wellness strategy "evolves."

Live Better U, created in 2018, subsidizes the cost of tuition, books and fees, plus academic counseling, at select institutions for full-time, part-time and salaried employees of Walmart U.S. and Sam's Club seeking to complete an associate or bachelor's degree. The retailer has more than 1.5 million U.S. workers, making it the nation's largest private-sector employer.

Initially, Live Better U covered only an associate degree in business and a bachelor's in supply-chain management. Then in May, Greg Foran, chief executive officer of Walmart U.S., announced the expansion of the benefit program to include 14 technology degrees and certificates, and to offer aid to the 25,000 or so Walmart workers still in high school.

The new health and wellness opportunities include career diploma programs for pharmacy technicians and opticians through Penn Foster, and seven bachelor's degrees in health science, health and wellness, and health care management/administration offered through Purdue University Global, Southern New Hampshire University, Bellevue University and Wilmington University.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, job opportunities in the health and wellness sector are expected to grow 18% between 2016 and 2026.

Live Better U's degrees and diplomas "will arm associates with training to fill critical health care roles across Walmart and Sam's Club, which includes more than 5,000 retail pharmacies, 3,000 vision centers and 400 hearing centers, as well as the new Walmart Health center in Georgia," a Walmart news release said.

Walmart announced its goal of becoming "America's neighborhood health destination" with the Sept. 13 opening of the 10,000-square-foot Walmart Health clinic in an Atlanta suburb. The center offers primary care; diagnostics; mental-health counseling; and dental, optical and hearing services. It is expected to employ between 80 and 100 workers.

While it's Walmart's first such venture, Sean Slovenski, president of health and wellness for Walmart's U.S. division, said the clinic is "just the beginning" of the retailer's plans to make affordable health care more accessible for its U.S. customers. The clinic will serve as a pilot to test the model before expanding it to other communities, Slovenski said. A second facility is already scheduled to open early next year in Calhoun, Ga.

A top feature of the state-of-the-art health center is low and transparent pricing regardless of patients' insurance status, Slovenski said. Prices for many services are posted online. Annual physicals are $30 for adults and $20 for children, for instance, and lab tests start at $10. A dental exam including X-rays is priced as $25, and individual counseling sessions are $45. Patients will be told the approximate cost of their visit when they make the appointment.

Wall Street analysts, many of whom attended the health center's opening, responded enthusiastically. Morgan Stanley analyst Simeon Gutman wrote in a note the next week that "we believe its goal is to change the face of health care in America, resulting in a clear positive for consumers and another avenue of growth for Walmart." Christopher Mandeville with Jefferies & Co. wrote that the new health center concept will enhance the relationship between Walmart and U.S. families.

Thomas Van Gilder, Walmart's chief medical officer, said the retailer's footprint nationwide uniquely positions it to offer affordable health care to millions of people. "As our health and wellness strategy and offerings continue to evolve, Live Better U will play a critical role in preparing our associates across the country for future work opportunities in the growing health-care field."

Live Better U's other benefits include discounts on higher-education programs such as master's degrees, and free foreign-language classes. Walmart says hundreds of thousands of employees have already received skills training equivalent to more than $300 million in college credits, and it expects to add more programs over the next year.

In its first year, more than 13,500 Walmart employees from all 50 states were accepted into at least one of Live Better U's programs, beating the retailer's projections, and more than 100,000 have expressed interest. Walmart says workers have completed more than 36,000 credits worth $17.5 million in that year.

The education benefit is offered in partnership with Guild Education, which provides academic counseling to help students with application, enrollment and selecting the appropriate degree. Live Better U "is quickly leading the pack as one of the most innovative corporate-sponsored education programs in the country," said Rachel Carlson, Guild Education's chief executive officer.

Business on 09/25/2019

Print Headline: Walmart benefit adds health degrees

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