Drugstore giant Walgreens is seeking state approval to open medical clinics inside 16 of its Massachusetts stores, providing the first sign of competition for CVS's MinuteClinics, which earlier this year outlined plans to expand into the state.
Under the banner of its clinic subsidiary, Take Care Health Systems, Walgreens last month quietly submitted requests to the state to build clinics inside stores stretching from the North Shore to the South Shore, from the Merrimack Valley to Worcester.
The company also indicated that it wants to open a Take Care clinic inside a store in Roxbury, potentially setting up a showdown with Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who fervently opposes the clinics. The mayor has argued that retail clinics providing episodic care will fracture the medical system, ultimately hurting patients.
A Take Care spokeswoman, Lauren Tierney, said yesterday that the company expects to open the first of its Bay State clinics in the fall. The company currently operates 173 clinics in 14 states and intends to have 400 running nationwide by the end of the year.
Tierney said the company was attracted to Massachusetts, in part, because of the state's drive toward near-universal health coverage.
"We applaud the progressive efforts Massachusetts has taken to cover more lives in the state," Tierney said. "And we hope that Take Care health clinics can provide more access points to get patients into the system."
Much like the clinics inside CVS stores, the Walgreens facilities are designed to dispense treatment for bronchitis, earaches, and other minor ailments a few aisles away from shelves of candy and nail polish. The clinics would operate seven days a week, from early morning to midevening on weekdays and with more truncated hours on weekends.
According to Take Care's menu of services, the cost of a visit ranges from $59 to $74 and is covered by many insurance plans.
Walgreens' proposal is further evidence of a controversial shift in the state's healthcare landscape: Like the CVS MinuteClinics, the Take Care centers will be for-profit operations staffed by nurse practitioners, in a state where medical treatment historically has been the province of not-for-profit hospitals and physicians working in mostly large group practices.
When state regulators adopted rules in January that allowed in-store clinics, Menino emerged as the most vocal critic, insisting the clinics would jeopardize the storied network of community health centers in Boston.
The mayor was so enraged that he asked the city's Public Health Commission to explore ways it could block the opening of retail clinics in Boston.
Instead, a task force was established to explore how primary care services could be improved and, at the same time, CVS began reviewing its plans with the mayor.
CVS has not filed plans to open clinics in Boston, but in March, the company submitted applications for 10 suburban stores. Those applications are still pending.
Barbara Ferrer, executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission, said last night that the Roxbury store where Walgreens wants to open a clinic sits within a few blocks of three community health centers, which provide a broad set of services with convenient hours.
"I can't imagine any scenario where we would be supporting this effort" by Walgreens, Ferrer said, unless the retail clinics complemented - rather than competed with - existing services at the community health centers.
"The mayor's concern is that with the richness of this health center infrastructure," she said, "if these limited-service clinics are to open, they should only do so if they're going to preserve all that we've worked toward to provide access to comprehensive services."
Tierney, the Take Care clinic spokeswoman, said last night that the company intends to consult Menino as it proceeds.
"Our goal is to work with him and help make him aware of the value we bring to the Boston community," Tierney said.
Paul Dreyer, the Department of Public Health official leading the review of the clinics' plans, said that regulators are continuing to review the proposals submitted by CVS Caremark Corp. and Walgreen Co. While he did not have a timetable for a decision, Dreyer, director of the agency's Bureau of Health Care Safety and Quality, said that once the initial retail clinics are given the go-ahead, he expects the approval process to become faster and more routine.
CVS executives did not return phone calls seeking their reaction to the move by Walgreens.
Stephen Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.