Getting a flu shot was not among Emma Fulton’s priorities in December. The 20-year-old was preoccupied with wrapping up the fall semester at St. Olaf College in Minnesota and getting home to Billings for the holidays.
In the middle of the holiday shuffle and semester tests, Emma’s 17-year-old sister, Maria, in also failed to get an influenza vaccine.
But on Christmas Eve day, the omission caught up with both young women as their mother, Liz Fulton, pondered where her daughters could get flu shots, given the holiday and office closures.
They found their answer tucked inside their corner grocery store.
Each was able to get her flu shot at ExpressCare, in the Albertsons at 3137 Grand Ave. Billings Clinic opened the retail clinic, its first, last December.
Last month, the Fultons turned to ExpressCare again when Maria came home from school with a sore throat. Chances of getting to see her regular physician that day were slim. She logged on to her computer at 1:45 p.m., made an appointment for 2 p.m., received a throat culture and was home in bed by 2:30 p.m., Liz Fulton said.
“All of our needs were met in a timely manner,” she said. “It gave me such comfort to know she had been in and out and treated. In our case it was the perfect solution.”
Fulton was not only impressed with the easy access and convenience, but also the cost. The flu shots were $30 each; the tab for Maria’s sore throat was $69, substantially less than if they had scheduled an office visit for each service. And both were covered by the Fulton’s insurance.
There is a growing demand for easy access and convenience, which is why at noon Wednesday, Billings Clinic opened its second location inside the Albertsons at 607 Main St. in the Heights. Third and fourth locations are set to open this summer and fall in stores at 1212 Grand Ave. and Sixth Street West and Central Avenue.
“Our ExpressCare clinics offer patients an option for a convenient, accessible, and cost-effective care for minor medical problems,” said Dr. James Girolami, family medicine physician at Billings Clinic and Medical Director for ExpressCare. “We are pleased to be able to offer this service at a second location, allowing patients in the Heights to experience the quality care we have been offering at our Grand Avenue location.”
ExpressCare patient volumes at the Grand Avenue location have been steady, said Girolami. On its busiest day, ExpressCare saw 30 patients.
The top three services provided are treatment for cold/respiratory illness, sore throat and ear pain/infection. The average age of people receiving care at the retail clinic is 35.
With the expansion of clinics also comes an expansion of services. Starting Wednesday, sports physicals for students ages 13 to 19 will be added to the list of services offered at ExpressCare. The cost is $50; insurance will not be billed.
Procedures also include wart removal and ear lavage. Testing includes rapid strep screen, flu screen, urine pregnancy test, urine screen and TB testing. Vaccinations available include influenza, tetanus, Hepatitis B, pneumonia and meningitis.
The clinics are staffed by physician assistants and nurse practitioners who treat patients for allergies, bladder infections, ear infections and ear pain, colds and/or respiratory illness, pink eye or sties, sinus infection and/or sinus pain, sore throats, rashes, cold sores, bug bites, athlete’s foot or ringworm and minor burns and skin abrasions.
The cost of services provided at ExpressCare have a set price range from $25 to $70. Most major insurance will be accepted. Customers are required to pay their co-pay at the time of service. Customers without insurance or customers with insurance that is not accepted at ExpressCare are also 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.
The opening of the Billings ExpressCare brings to 17 the number of in-store clinics that Albertsons has in Oregon, California, Idaho, Illinois and now Montana.
Patients may 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.
Though 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.
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.
They 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.