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Billings Clinic has joined the explosion of health care providers across the nation who are providing patients with quick access to medical care at a location that’s convenient to them — the neighborhood grocery store.

The hospital on Wednesday unveiled its first retail clinic, called ExpressCare, in the Albertsons at 3137 Grand Ave. A second location is set to open at Hilltop Road and Main Street in the Heights in March. Third and fourth locations are set to open this summer in stores at 1212 Grand Ave. and Sixth Street West and Central Avenue.

Billings Clinic officials said they explored the new business opportunity to make it easier and more convenient for patients to access quality care.

Dr. Nicholas Wolter, CEO of Billings Clinic, said it is "simply a good community service."

The clinic will be staffed by physician assistants and nurse practitioners who will treat patients for allergies, bladder infections, ear infections and ear pain, colds and/or respiratory illness, pink eye or styes, sinus infection and/or sinus pain, sore throats, rashes, cold sores, bug bites, athlete’s foot or ringworm and minor burns and skin abrasions.

Procedures will include wart removal and ear lavage. Testing will include rapid strep screen, flu screen, urine pregnancy test, urine screen and TB testing. Vaccinations available will include influenza, tetanus, Hepatitis B, pneumonia and meningitis.

The cost of services provided at ExpressCare will range from $25 to $70. Most major insurance will be accepted. Customers will be required to pay their co-pay at the time of service. Customers without insurance or customers with insurance that is not accepted at ExpressCare will be required to pay at the time of service. Payments may be made by personal check or credit card.

A recent study showed that 67 percent of retail clinic visits were paid for by insurance, whether it was Medicare, Medicaid, private insurance or workers' compensation.

In contrast, about 90 percent of visits to primary care physicians are paid by insurance. Most clinics can refer patients to local doctors or emergency rooms and the availability of these clinics can help people avoid emergency rooms if possible.

Chris Cornwall, divisional pharmacy manager for Albertsons, said he knows from past experience in other areas how much customers appreciate in-store clinics.

“Grocery store clinics are as close as many health care providers can get to being able make house calls these days,” he said. The clinics can draw patients in who may shy away from traditional doctor appointments just as much as they can help busy parents with quick visits for themselves and their kids.”

The opening of the Billings ExpressCare brings to 15 the number of in-store clinics that Albertsons has in Oregon, California, Idaho, Illinois and now Montana.

"We've seen firsthand how much this can help our customers by providing quality, convenient and inexpensive health care," said Chuck Cremer, district manager for Albertsons.

Patients will be able to use their smartphones and tablets to make appointments. Appointments also will be available for walk-in customers. Customers may also call 435-4500 to schedule an appointment.

Before ExpressCare officially opened at noon, the first appointment was already booked. Karen Anthony, a cashier at the West End Albertsons, made an appointment using the touch screen tablet. She surmised she was suffering from laryngitis but wanted a medical opinion.

"I am just tickled pink this is here," Anthony said. "It was very simple and so convenient."

While the retail clinic concept is new to Billings, it has been around for more than a decade and has grown substantially in popularity. The first clinics began opening in 2000, and as of Sept. 1, there were 1,475 retail health clinics in the United States, according to Merchant Medicine. While visits to retail clinics comprise a small percentage of overall outpatient visits, they quadrupled from 2007 to 2009. Americans made almost six million visits to retail clinics in 2009 alone.

And the wave of popularity shows no signs of waning.

Because of health insurance expansion and the need to offer lower primary care costs, the number of retail clinics is projected to double over the next five years in the U.S. to 3,000, according to the Convenient Care Association, a trade association for retail clinics.

Retail clinics are projected to account for about 10 percent of outpatient primary care visits by 2015, according to a story funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which focuses on health care issues.

An estimated 40 to 50 percent of the people who use retail clinics don't have a primary care physician, and many are uninsured and find the clinics an affordable option. Costs for comparable services at retail clinics are 40 percent lower than in physician offices and urgent care centers and 80 percent less than emergency departments.

The top medical conditions treated at these clinics include: sore throat, common colds, flu symptoms, cough, and sinus infection, according to the Convenient Care Association.

The American Academy of Family Physicians does not endorse the clinics, saying they could interfere with a patient establishing a "medical home" with a primary care doctor. It also contends that it fragments patient care by offering medical in a variety of places.

The American Medical Association, an early critic of retail health clinics a decade ago, has begun to ease up. It has started to work with retailers and has even adopted policy regarding retail clinics to ensure higher quality service.