WHOLE HEALTH

LUBBOCK, Texas -- United Supermarkets here is expanding its pharmacies' patient-care services.Already in the business of performing immunizations and blood-pressure screenings, the 38-store chain is now helping customers manage their cholesterol levels as well.Early last month United began rolling out sophisticated cholesterol-monitoring devices to its pharmacies. The machines, manufactured by Hayward,

LUBBOCK, Texas -- United Supermarkets here is expanding its pharmacies' patient-care services.

Already in the business of performing immunizations and blood-pressure screenings, the 38-store chain is now helping customers manage their cholesterol levels as well.

Early last month United began rolling out sophisticated cholesterol-monitoring devices to its pharmacies. The machines, manufactured by Hayward, Calif.-based Cholestech Corp., will be in all 25 United stores with pharmacies by January, when ads promoting the service will start to appear in the retailer's monthly circular, said Leland Wehde, director of pharmacy services. The Cholestech machines cost $2,000 each to purchase and install, he said.

"It's not a light investment, but we think it will pay off."

United pharmacies will conduct two kinds of cholesterol-level screenings, using a small sample of blood from a pin-prick in the patient's finger. One is a "fasting" exam -- the patient must refrain from eating for several hours prior to the test to ensure accuracy; the other a "nonfasting" version. The former, which Wehde said gives a more thorough profile of the subject's cardiovascular health, will cost $34. The latter will run $17.

Wehde said interested customers likely will pay for the cholesterol screenings directly, not through insurance plans. "It'll be mostly cash. At this point, not many companies are paying pharmacists to do this."

The retailer has also had preliminary talks with manufacturers of cholesterol-lowering drugs about funding, Wehde said. If a high-cholesterol sufferer could see hard evidence that his drug therapy was working, the thinking goes, he would be more likely to fill his prescription.

United, like many other retail pharmacy operators large and small, wants to become more involved in its customers' health maintenance regimens because the mere filling of prescriptions has become dramatically less profitable than it once was. Wehde noted 75% of United's prescription business now comes from managed-care payers; margins on these third-party-funded purchases have dropped from almost 30% a decade ago to between 11% and 18% today.

"We want to be at a point where our pharmacists are doing more [patient counseling] than filling prescriptions," he said.

Wehde said the pharmacies in all new United stores under construction or on the drawing board, as well as some remodels, will have private offices for pharmacist-customer counseling sessions. United currently has four new stores under construction, with one set to open early next year, he said.

United will extend blood-pressure testing to additional stores next year and is mulling the launch of a diabetes-management program, Wehde said.