Scary Monsters, Take 4: further investor thoughts on CVS-Aetna, the Amazon Threat–and Aetna’s skeleton in the closet? (updated)

click to enlargeThis Editor is always interested in Following the Money as a way to cut through the Fog of Hype and Headlines. The proposed CVS-Aetna merger is no exception. This recent article in Seeking Alpha is a must-read despite its click-bait headline because it not only looks at CVS-Aetna (a thumbs up generally) but also dissects the ‘Amazon Threat‘ and finds that like Oakland, there is (not much) there, there. Let’s look at the writer’s POV–who represents an investor group with no position:

  • CVS is in retail. Amazon is in retail. But CVS’ difference is that by and large, their retail is not a ‘destination’ (only 25 percent of their retail revenue) but a stop-off while a prescription is filled or there’s a visit to the MinuteClinic. I’d differ with this as many of their stores are semi-convenience stores and, at least in this New York metro area, located away from both traditional supermarkets and convenience stores. Some of us also don’t like to pay shipping on a few necessities, want the items now, prefer to pay cash, or coupon-clip. (And I just remembered I need a quart of milk, saving me a trip to the market….)
  • Amazon has exhibited some hesitancy in entering the pharmacy area. They won’t use their licenses to sell prescription drugs (CNBC, Nov) and canceled a wholesaler application in Maine. In the writer’s estimation, the threat to traditional PBM and prescription drugs is exaggerated because “For some reason, the market has been temporarily duped into thinking that a non-existent company with zero customers and zero experience is a real threat to a $70 Billion behemoth that has been at the top of its field for over 50 years.” Pharmacy is also heavily mail order for recurrent prescriptions or needed immediately, not suitable for the Amazon model unless they develop a true PBM and retail delivery. That isn’t to say that Amazon will never be a threat–just not right away. And what will happen before that is…
  • Through a merger with Aetna, CVS is demonstrating to shareholders that they are willing to diversify revenue and profit streams by adding over $60 billion in insurance business. An integration with Aetna (and providers) will help the profitable MinuteClinics grow and thrive, perhaps in non-traditional ways (e.g. anchoring malls).

Again, Amazon needs to enter profitable businesses (see our Follow the Money article) and create shareholder value, even at a $500bn valuation.

What may be a skeleton in Aetna’s closet is prior authorization procedures. Possibly spoiling a rosy CVS-Aetna merger picture is an investigation by the California insurance commissioner into Aetna’s prior authorization practices. It’s a result of a lawsuit in California Superior Court by a patient denied coverage for an intravenous immunoglobulin (IVIG) treatment. A former Aetna medical director admitted under oath in the case that he never looked at patients’ case files before denying authorization, accepting Aetna’s procedure of nurses making recommendations. This will not only affect Aetna, but also any payer doing business in California. Aetna claims that the plaintiff didn’t have necessary blood testing done prior to the authorization review and in fact avoided having it done. A decision here will be watched closely by every doctor who slaves on prior authorizations. With the CNN exclusive, expect many headlines and scrutiny with the spotlight on Aetna. Hat tip to Reader Howard Green, MD, via LinkedIn.

Updated. Colorado’s Division of Insurance is reviewing this information to see if it violates Colorado laws concerning patients’ right to appeal and review procedures that meet standards of care for the state. Expect more states to follow.  Healthcare Dive  

But will this slow or stop the merger? Likely not, but roll ‘dem bones. Lawyers surveyed by the National Law Journal say probably not, as past conduct is usually known by the merging party and factored in. However, this merger must be approved by 50 states’ insurance departments (and more). The caveat is that they use a ‘public interest’ standard that is broader than the Federal anti-trust or fair trade regulations. Look for states to extract concessions before this merger is done.

Categories: Latest News and Opinion.

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