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CVS Health CEO Larry Merlo says pandemic has pushed transformation to digital health

Turnaround times and testing capacity have greatly improved, and pharmacists will play a role in vaccine education.

Jeff Lagasse, Associate Editor

In a wide-ranging interview on the COVID-19 pandemic, CVS Health CEO Larry Merlo told Washington Post columnist David Ignatius that while the public health crisis has accelerated CVS/Aetna's transformation into a digital health services company, the country's best defense against the coronavirus involves the simpler manual tasks of hand-washing and mask-wearing.

Another important defense is testing. One of the company's big areas of focus has been on expanding testing capacity, particularly in underserved communities, where the disease has disproportionately impacted minority communities.

"Testing continues to play a critical role, and we now have more than 4,000 drive-through testing locations in communities throughout the country," Merlo said.


Many parts of the country are experiencing a surge of the virus, especially as temperatures drop and force people back inside. This has prompted CVS Health to prioritize getting adequate personal protective equipment to frontline healthcare workers and improving testing turnaround times.

Progress has been made in that regard, said Merlo, with 97% of CVS Health's test results being returned to customers in an average of 2.1 days, a substantial improvement in turnaround times. Laboratories have done well in terms of expanding capacity, which has cut down on testing delays, he said.

In addition to the molecular diagnostic test, the company is using more point-of-care testing, especially at worksites, where results can often be obtained in about 20 minutes. CVS Health plans to expand its point-of-care capabilities as the U.S. heads into the winter months.

It's likely that COVID-19 will bring about a "new normal" in healthcare once the pandemic has faded.

Merlo said he sees an opportunity for CVS Health to make contributions toward making healthcare more affordable and easier to use, citing the multiple chronic diseases – diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease among them – that account for roughly 75% to 80% of healthcare costs.

"We believe we can reduce overall healthcare costs," said Merlo. "The pandemic has accelerated elements of our transformation."

Included in that transformation, he said, is a focus on mobile technology that allows patients to schedule appointments and enter their insurance information. While there will always be a need to see patients face-to-face, Merlo sees the future of healthcare residing at the intersection of digital and brick-and-mortar assets.

"It creates what we believe to be a more seamless experience in making healthcare more accessible and more affordable," he said.


Of course, much hope is centered on the development and distribution of a safe, effective vaccine, and the CVS Health chief sees a role for pharmacists as trusted resources, providing education on the importance of getting vaccinated. 

On Monday, CVS Health announced plans to hire 15,000 new part-time and full-time employees in the fourth quarter, more than 10,000 of which will be licensed pharmacy technicians to help meet the needs of communities as flu and COVID-19 cases are expected to rise in the coming months.

The remaining on-site positions include pharmacists, nurses, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, member benefit case professionals and distribution center employees. The company is also recruiting thousands of remote customer service representatives to work in markets such as Indianapolis; Kansas City, Missouri; Knoxville, Tennessee; Mt. Prospect, Illinois; Orlando, Florida; Pittsburgh; and San Antonio.

CVS must also meet the need of vaccinations at long-term care facilities. The Department of Health and Human Services has tapped CVS and Walgreens to provide and administer free COVID-19 vaccines at long-term care facilities across the country. The pharmacies will be provided the vaccine and associated supplies. They are required to report vaccination data, such as who was vaccinated, with what vaccine and where, to local, state or territorial, and federal public health officials within 72 hours of administering the vaccine.

The American public also has a huge role to play in fighting the coronavirus, said Merlo.

Many Americans have expressed hesitance about taking a COVID-19 vaccine.

Getting a flu vaccine is also important, said Merlo, who stressed the need for consumers to get a seasonal flu shot to avoid compounding the health threats posed by the coronavirus. On that front, the signs are encouraging: About 11 million seasonal flu vaccines have been administered since August, which is an uptick of about 100% over the typical baseline.


"Good social hygiene is our best defense, as we keep our fingers crossed on that vaccine being available soon," Merlo said. "It took years, if not decades, to get everyone in the habit of (wearing) seat belts to save lives, and the responsibility we have to not only protect ourselves, but protect each other. We don't have years to change this behavior. … Communication becomes a guiding principle."

The Business of Health

This special collection of stories, which will be updated throughout the month, explores how hospitals, health systems and physicians are attempting to not only financially survive, but thrive, under the new normal.

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