Tuesday’s announcement about Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan (A/BH/JPM) was short on details. The three mega-firms will form an independent company that develops solutions, first, for their own companies’ health plans and then, almost certainly, for the larger health care marketplace. But the news reverberated throughout the health care industry as thoroughly as any in recent memory.
Health care organizations were shaken. Bloomberg Markets reported that:
Pharmacy-benefit manager Express Scripts Holding Co. fell as much as 11 percent, the most intraday since April, at the open of U.S. trading Tuesday, while rival CVS Health Corp. dropped as much as 6.4 percent. Health insurers also fell, with Anthem Inc. losing as much as 6.5 percent and Aetna, which is being bought by CVS, sliding as much as 4.3 percent.
As expected, these firms’ stock prices rebounded the next day. But you could interpret the drops as reflections of the perceived fragility of health care companies’ dominance, and traders’ confidence in the potential power of Amazon’s newly announced entity. Legacy health care firms, with their well-earned reputations for relentlessly opaque arrangements and egregious pricing, are vulnerable, especially to proven disruptors who believe that taming health care’s excesses is achievable. Meanwhile, many Americans have come to believe in Amazon’s ability to deliver.
Those who buy health care for employers and unions probably quietly rejoiced at the announcement. For them, the prospect of a group that might actually transform health care would be a breath of fresh air. In my experience at least, the CFOs and benefits managers at employers and unions are acutely aware that they’re being taken advantage of by every health care industry sector. They’re genuinely weary from it, and they’d welcome a solid alternative.
Their health care intentions notwithstanding, the A/BH/JPM group is formidable, representing immense strength and competence. Amazon is an unstoppably proven serial industry innovator, continuing to consolidate its position in the US and in key markets globally. Berkshire Hathaway harbors significant financial strength and a stop-loss unit, US Medical Stop Loss, fluent in underwriting health care risk, which should be handy. In addition to the fact that JPMorgan is the nation’s largest bank, with assets worth nearly $2.5 trillion in 2016, it has a massive list of prospective buyers in its commercial client base.
This triumvirate knows that, in health care, they have an advantage. There are proven but mostly untapped approaches in the market that effectively manage health care clinical, financial and administrative risk, consistently delivering better health outcomes at significantly lower cost. In the main, legacy health care organizations have ignored these solutions, because efficiencies would compromise their financial positions.
To put this into perspective, consider that, since early 2009, when the Affordable Care Act was passed, the stock prices of the major health plans have grown a spectacular 5.3-9.6 times, 3.7 times the growth of the S&P and 3.2 times the growth of the Dow.
At the end of the day under current fee-for-service arrangements, health care’s legacy organizations make more and have rising value if health care costs more. If they take advantage of readily available solutions that make health care better and cost less, earnings, stock price and market capitalization will all tumble. They’re in a box.
What little we know about Amazon’s intentions indicates that they are ambitious. Presumably they’ll begin by bringing technology tools to bear. That could cover a lot of territory, but assembling and integrating high value narrow networks by identifying the performance of different health care product/service providers seems like a doable and powerful place to begin. High performance vendors exist in a broad swath of high value niches. Arranging these risk management modules under a single organizational umbrella can easily result in superior outcomes at dramatically less cost than current health care spend.
Amazon has developed a relationship with industry leading Pharmacy Benefits Manager (PBM) Express Scripts, Inc. (ESI), likely to operationalize mail order and facility-based pharmacies. Given ESI’s history of opacity and hall-of-mirrors transactions – approaches that are directly counter to Amazon’s ethos – it’s tempting to imagine that that relationship is a placeholder until Amazon can devise or identify a more value-based model.
Also, a couple weeks ago, Amazon hired Martin Levine, MD, a geriatrician who had run the Seattle clinics for Boston-based Medicare primary care clinic firm Iora Health. This could suggest that Amazon aspires to deliver clinical services, likely through both telehealth and brick- and-mortar facilities.
All this said, we should expect the unexpected. The A/BH/JPM announcement wasn’t rushed, but the result of a carefully thought through, methodical planning exercise. As it has done over and over again – think Prime video; 2 day, free shipping; and the Echo – it is easy to imagine that Amazon could present us with powerful health care innovations that seem perfect intuitive but weren’t previously on anyone’s radar.
What is most fascinating about this announcement is that it appears to pursue the pragmatic urgency of fixing a serious problem that afflicts every business. At the same time, it may represent an effort to subvert and take control health care’s current structure.
So while we may be elated that a candidate health care solution is raising its head, we should be skeptical of stated good intentions. Warren Buffett’s now famous comment that ballooning health care costs are “a hungry tapeworm on the American economy” ring a little hollow when we realize that Berkshire Hathaway owns nearly one-fifth of the dialysis company Da Vita, a model of hungry health industry tapeworms.
Finally, we should not doubt that this project has aspirations far beyond US health care. The corporatization and distortion of health care’s practices is a global problem that will be susceptible to the same solutions of evidence and efficiency everywhere.
All this is promising in the extreme, but there’s also a catch. The US health care industry’s excesses undermine our republic and have become a threat to our national economic security. The solutions that this A/BH/JPM project will leverage could become an antidote to the devils we all know plague our country’s health care system. That said, we should be mindful that, over the long term, our saviors could become equally or more problematic.
Brian Klepper is Principal of Worksite Health Advisors, which connects health care purchasers to high performance health care services.