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Rite Aid expands online doctor consultations

| Saturday, March 2, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Rite Aid has expanded an online doctor service for its drugstore customers that is limited to virtual visits but cheaper than a traditional primary care appointment.

The company, the nation's third-largest drugstore operator with 4,600 stores, said on Friday that its NowClinic Online Care program is available at 58 locations in four cities: Baltimore, Boston, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Its rivals, Walgreen and CVS, also run in-store clinic programs. Walgreen operates more than 370 Take Care clinics, and CVS runs more than 600 MinuteClinics.

Rite Aid's service connects drugstore customers with doctors for a video or phone consultation about a range of ailments such as allergies, bronchitis, rashes, the flu or sinus infections. Rite Aid officials say the concept aims to improve access to health care.

The drugstore's effort occurs less than a year before a wave of new patients is expected to hit the health care system when the federal health care overhaul expands insurance coverage to millions of people. Some are worried about primary care doctors' ability to keep up with the expected influx of patients.

“It's just one more avenue for someone who needs some form of acute care medical attention to get it,” said Robert Thompson, Rite Aid's executive vice president of pharmacy. “It's certainly easier than going to the emergency room.”

Insurers don't cover Rite Aid's online care service, but it is less expensive than other types of care.

The 10-minute doctor consultations cost $45, while a doctor's office visit could cost someone without insurance more than $100, and an emergency room bill might run several hundred dollars.

Doctors can write prescriptions after consulting with patients, or they can refer them elsewhere for more extensive care. Customers also can have video or phone chats for free with a nurse.

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