David Rosario recalls the late 1980s with mixed feelings. He had achieved his goal of becoming a professional dancer in New York City, but in that world he also lost many young male friends to AIDS. At the time, there were few treatment options for the disease, which hit the gay community particularly hard.
“It was sad at the time,” Rosario said. “There was nothing, so these beautiful people lost their lives.”
Now Rosario owns a restaurant in New Jersey with his husband. Each month, he picks up drugs that make HIV undetectable and non-transmissible at his local Walmart pharmacy—a prospect unthinkable a generation ago. But this easy access now gives him hope.
“It’s not really a big deal to me, but for a lot of these boys who are looking for relationships and things, I think it’s a game changer,” he said.
Walmart’s HIV Outreach
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that new HIV infections have fallen by 12% in recent years, from 36,500 new cases in 2017 to 32,000 in 2021. Racial and ethnic disparities remain, however, with those of color people account for a disproportionate share of new HIV infection diagnoses. According to CDC data, in 2021, 40% of new cases were attributed to African Americans and 29% to Latinos.
Walmart In late 2021, the company launched a pilot HIV specialty pharmacy program targeting just over half a dozen hard-hit communities, including Rosarios County in New Jersey.
“From the data, we can see that there is a need here — HIV incidence is higher,” said Kevin Host, senior vice president of Walmart pharmacy.
Now the retail giant plans to expand its program to more than 80 HIV specialty facilities in nearly a dozen states by the end of this year.
Shoppers wait in line at the pharmacy of a Walmart store in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Callaghan O’Hare | Bloomberg | Getty Images
The company’s pharmacists have undergone special training on HIV disease and drugs to treat and prevent the virus. A big part of this is starting a conversation with patients who may be at risk.
“Getting patients to talk about their condition can be challenging,” said pharmacist Gemima Kleine. “There is a stigma, and it’s better than it used to be, but it hasn’t gone away.”
Public-private HIV partnership
This stigma can make people in some communities reluctant to seek treatment. But it’s not the only problem faced by people who may be HIV positive.
While just over half of non-Hispanic white patients were insured on pre-exposure prophylaxis drugs known as PrEP last year, CDC data shows that only 13.6% of Hispanic and 6.9% of African American patients were on the Medicines were insured that help prevent transmission of the virus.
To fill this gap, Walmart and two of its major pharmacy competitors, CVS health And Walgreenshave joined the Department of Health’s initiative to end the HIV epidemic by 2030 by making antiviral drugs more widely available and providing support services.
“There are certain drugs where it might not be the worst if you miss a dose and it won’t have much of an effect, but with the HIV-AIDS drugs, compliance is so important,” Kleine said.
CVS has made HIV testing available at its Minute Clinics and has helped patients obtain no-cost prescriptions through the government’s Ready, Set, PrEP program.
Similarly, Walgreens has trained more than 3,000 of its pharmacists to provide treatment advice, conduct ongoing testing and provide free home delivery of HIV medication to encourage patients to stick to medication schedules.
And Walmart has found that its commitment to local health clinics and community groups that help patients in hard-hit communities access medical care is beginning to pay off.
“If they know we have additional training and services to help their patients, we’ll see them coming to us soon, and then we can connect with them,” Host said. “It was really a great connection between community and company.”
On June 27, as part of National HIV Testing Day, Walmart will join other pharmacies and offer free HIV testing at many of its specialty pharmacies.
The outreach of the HIV program comes at a time when major pharmacies are focused on expanding their healthcare services. They hope initiatives like the specialty pharmacies will reinforce their role as community healthcare providers in consumer awareness—and improve patient outcomes.
“Hopefully they’ll implement something like that in small towns and big cities — maybe things are harder to get or they’re not aware of it,” Rosario said.
Correction: This story has been updated to clarify where Walmart will be offering free HIV testing on June 27th; The Company will offer the program at select pharmacy locations.