Increased demand for primary care services also plays a role in insurer interests in UCCs. Health insurers and hospitals are competing for ownership positions in physician groups. But for insurers, an investment in a UCC, which can provide basic medical services at lower costs, is "less intensive" than investing in a primary care practice, says Windley.
It can also provide insurers with leverage when negotiating reimbursement rates with hospitals for emergency department services, Windley adds.
Insurers are also investing in UCCs in preparation for the advent of health insurance exchanges in 2014, says Brett Hickman, a partner with PwC's health industries advisory practice. With millions of people joining the ranks of the insured pent-up demand for medical care is expected to strain the primary care sector.
Payers are looking at the rich benefit packages that will be offered through the exchanges and seeing an opportunity for UCCs to provide an alternative not only for expensive emergency department visits but also for physician office visits.
Urgent care centers typically employ doctors, nurses, and physician assistants. They treat common injuries and illnesses such as sprains, cuts and bites, and colds and ear infections. Many also can provide immunizations, blood and urine tests, EKGs, occupational health services, and even on-site pharmacy services.