Walgreen expands hiring of disabled, adds more medical care, fresh-food stores (Tierra W.)

Walgreen CEO Greg Wasson, 53, is pushing the Deerfield-based drugstore giant’s growth in largely unseen and under-served areas — providing both medical care and fresh foods in food desert neighborhoods and expanding the hiring and training of people with physical and mental disabilities.

Wasson spoke to the Executive Club of Chicago’s civic affairs committee breakfast at the Palmer House Hilton on Thursday.

Technological innovations that allow people with disabilities greater job opportunities are enabling Walgreen to expand to its retail stores a program it started five years ago at its Anderson, S.C. distribution center, in which it hires and trains people with disabilities to work alongside other employees. About 50 percent of the employees at the South Carolina center and at a distribution center in Windsor, Conn., have a physical, developmental or cognitive disability.

Wasson said the in-store training is going well, and that 55 percent of the people who are being trained in the program have been hired. A Walgreen spokesman could not identify any Chicago-area stores involved.

Walgreen Co. is adding health care services just as an estimated 30 million to 40 million more people in the next several years will have health insurance under President Obama’s health care reform.

Wasson said Walgreen Co. “can play a huge role” in allowing newly insured people to find affordable, quality health care, through both its in-store health-care clinics and the clinics and fitness centers it runs for 354 client companies nationwide. Walgreen also operates outpatient pharmacies at 150 hospitals and medical complexes, including Children’s Memorial and Northwestern Memorial, and is the nation’s largest provider of medicines given through a needle or catheter to people who are at home.

Wasson said Walgreen views its 7,840 stores and 250,000 employees nationwide, of whom 75,000 work in the clinics or pharmacies, as “the largest network of health-care service providers in the country.”

Walgreen operates 350 in-store clinics nationwide, and has stationed a new, full-time, iPad-toting health guide in 16 stores in the Chicago area to get solutions or referrals for shoppers’ personal health questions. The idea is to free up the pharmacist to talk with patients one-on-one and, ultimately, seek to qualify for bigger insurance reimbursements.

The company’s commitment to the so-called “food desert,” where residents lack access to affordable fresh-food within a mile or so, includes working with Chicago’s urban farmers to increase the amount of food they provide to Walgreen’s 12 stores with expanded fresh-food departments in predominantly African-American neighborhoods.

The 150 fresh-food items added to those stores “have been wildly received — more than we expected,” Wasson said.

The company also is building more high-end stores with sushi bars, craft beer, expensive wine, exclusive cosmetics, nail and eyebrow stations and other features, such as the one it opened in downtown Chicago in January. The store is fashioned off of the New York-based Duane Reade drugstores that Walgreen acquired a year ago for $1.1 billion.

Analysts worry that Walgreen is being hurt by its decision to stop filling prescriptions for patients in the Express Scripts pharmacy benefits network, but they agree that Walgreen is nevertheless well positioned for growth in the booming health-care and prescription drug industry. Wasson repeated after his speech that Walgreen expects to keep many of those patients and could not continue to fill prescriptions that didn’t generate a profit.

Asked about analysts’ speculation that Walgreen’s next big move is a merger with rival CVS drugstores, Wasson shrugged off the question, saying, “I don’t know.”

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