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Can Walgreens Solve the Health-Care Crisis?

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Walgreen Co., like many other companies that touch the medical industry, is eagerly eyeing the outcome of President Obama’s health-care reform initiative. But no matter what happens in Washington, Walgreen wins. “Whatever happens is good for us,” says Hal Rosenbluth, president of Walgreens Health and Wellness, who visited Fast Company‘s office yesterday afternoon. “If it passes, we’re ready to be part of delivering universal care, and if it doesn’t, more people are going to need affordable health care, even at a cash price, and that’s what we provide.”

Rosenbluth, who scored when he sold his business-to-business travel-management company Rosenbluth International to American Express in 2003, has long been an innovator. He turned to the health-care business while he was decompressing on his North Dakota cattle ranch. “I was talking to Peter Miller [then a Johnson & Johnson executive] and trying to figure out the biggest problem we could try to solve,” he says. “We came up with high-quality affordable health care. That was the biggest problem, at least at the time.”

Miller and Rosenbluth built Take Care Health Systems, walk-in clinics inside drugstores that are run by a nurse practitioner. They sold it to Walgreen Co., the $59 billion drugstore chain, when they had just 20 clinics. And Rosenbluth, who was used to being his own boss, found himself inside a megacorporation. “It took a lot of getting used to,” he admits. “I’m a very transparent person, and I have had to be more careful in what I say working for a large, public company. But they’ve allowed me to maintain my ability to be an entrepreneur.”

Indeed, Rosenbluth has built out 700 clinics from his original 20 in just 18 months. And he believes the health and wellness company he’s built is a microcosm and a model for what affordable, accessible health care should look like in the U.S. “Walgreen Co. had the footprint and the money to roll this out,” he says. There are 6,300 Walgreens, and a vast majority of Americans live within five miles of one. In fact, one million people have already been served by one of his clinics. Ultimately, he thinks it makes sense for about one in every three Walgreens to have one. Its electronic medical records system lets you travel to any clinic and the staff can access your information, and Rosenbluth says that he wants to be part of any larger national EMR initiative, having built his system to be open and extensible.

Rosenbluth has extended his network to include corporate wellness centers too, signing up companies such as Disney, Continental Airlines, Goodyear Tire, and the mining company Rio Tinto. They usually include fitness centers and offer full primary care. These centers are linked to the rest of Walgreen Co’s network and include dependent care, so if you don’t work at the site with a wellness center, you can go to any Walgreens clinic and receive care.”We’re trying to mimic what we’ve done in the corporate centers in our in-store clinics,” he says. “We want to move from acute episodic care–pink eye, flu shots–to full primary care.”

Walgreens already lets you schedule an appointment with a doctor at one of its clinics on a day’s notice, for $59. “And if you need a specialist, we’ll find them that,” Rosenbluth says. And he wants to move into chronic care, helping people manage diseases such as diabetes, with which he was recently diagnosed.

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Speaking with Rosenbluth, his care, passion, and sense of mission shine through. “There’s corporate success and social success,” he says. “I told my oldest son, who’s 25, that every generation has left this country better than the last, but it looks like mine might leave us in sorry shape. What I can personally do to change that is to try to change health care.” Rosenbluth knows he can’t do it all himself–although he hinted to stay tuned for a major announcement on March 31–but if he continues doing what he’s doing, he’s going to have a huge impact, health-care reform or no.

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