Short Takes: Amazon buys symptom checker Health Navigator; Ettain Group acquires EHR consultant Leidos Health

Amazon’s acquisition of startup Health Navigator, a developer of online symptom checking and triage tools sold to other digital companies to integrate into their digital health solutions, is another foray into healthcare. In this case, Health Navigator is a straightforward fit into their Amazon Care unit which provides enterprise virtual care benefits. No transaction amount, leadership, nor timing are mentioned. This is unlike their purchase earlier this year of online pharmacy PillPack for a stunning $700+ million. After roadblocks on getting the patient data they need [TTA 12 Sept], and other stumbles, PillPack has been folded into their consumables group and right now is not challenging CVS or Walgreens in any meaningful way. CNBC

Charlotte NC-based Ettain Group has purchased EHR consultancy Leidos Health, which is known to our Readers for its contract with the US Department of Defense in the replacement of the ancient AHLTA EHR with a Cerner system. (One wonders what will happen here.) The acquisition will reinforce Ettain’s healthcare IT sector. Leidos Inc. remains in business in the government and private healthcare sectors for consulting. Unfortunately the announcement is dimmed by a poorly written and elliptical release.

News and event roundup: Amazon PillPack, Humana joins CTA, NH’s telemedicine go, Fitbit Lives Healthy in Singapore, supporting Helsinki’s older adults, events

Now that we are past the unofficial end of summer, it’s time to spin that lasso and rope us some news.

Amazon’s PillPack loses a critical data partner. Electronic prescriptions clearinghouse Surescripts terminated their data contract with ReMy Health, which supplied PillPack with information on patients’ prescriptions. Surescripts found fraud in several areas of their relationship with ReMy Health including medication history, drug pricing, and insurance billing. Now PillPack has to obtain it the old-fashioned way–by asking the patient. This can lead to errors and inaccuracies in things like dosages and whether a drug is brand-name or generic. Now PillPack, in the lurch, is seeking a direct relationship with Surescripts. Seeking Alpha, CNBC

Health plan Humana is the first payer to join the Consumer Technology Association (CTA). Humana has been building up his data analytics and digital health capabilities with new ‘studios’ in Boston and hiring USAA’s CTO.  It’s piloting an app for Medicare Advantage patients to connect them with pharmacists and medication management via Aspen RxHealth plus working on a virtual digital primary model with telemedicine provider Doctor on Demand. Fierce Healthcare

New Hampshire is joining the telemedicine reimbursement bandwagon, with its legislature and Gov. Sununu approving primary care providers and pediatricians to bill Medicaid and private insurance for telemedicine visits starting in January 2020. This also ties into rural telehealth. AP, Mobihealthnews

Internationally….Fitbit is partnering with Singapore’s Health Promotion Board (HPB) for the Live Healthy SG behavioral change program, based on the Fitbit Premium program, starting in late October. Mobihealthnews A-P   In Finland, Digital Service Center Helsinki is creating digital tools and virtual care systems to enable older adults to safely and independently live at home, including socialization to prevent loneliness. It’s a significant challenge as over 22 percent of Finland’s population is over 65. Mobihealthnews Europe-UK

Events:

The 9th International Digital Public Health Conference series (#DPH2019), 20-23 November, Marseille, France. This conference is billed as the digital health partner of the 12th European Public Health Conference and brings together the areas of public health, computer and data science, medtech, and NGOs. Conference information here.

Aging 2.0 New York Global Innovation Showcase 4 December, NYC. One of a series of global Aging 2.o events, startups will present aging-focused innovations. Want to pitch? It’s still open–apply here. Register to attend here. Additional information on this and on CREATE’s Design for Older Adults Workshop on 21-22 October at Weill Cornell is here.

 

CVS-Aetna merger closes, but hardly ‘rubber stamped’ in Federal court

The deal is done, but expect unhappy holidays. As expected, the $69 million CVS-Aetna merger closed the week after Thanksgiving, on Wednesday 26 November, and are proceeding with their integration. Later that week, a Federal judge in the Washington, DC District Court complained at a hearing that both companies had treated him as a “rubber stamp” for the agreement. He was “less convinced” than the Department of Justice that the merger was legal under US anti-trust law. Yesterday (Tuesday 3 Dec), Judge Richard Leon ordered both companies and the DOJ to file briefs by 14 December “to show why their integration should not be halted while he considers whether or not to approve the consent decree reached in October,” according to Reuters.

This is despite various pounds of flesh:

  • The Department of Justice imposing the condition that Aetna sell its Medicare Part D drug plan business to far smaller WellCare Health Plans
  • New York State’s Department of Financial Services extracting concessions around their concerns: acquisition costs will not be passed onto consumers through increased premium rates or to affiliated insurers; maintaining current products for three years; privacy controls; cybersecurity compliance. Oh yes, a small $40 million commitment to support health insurance education and enrollment. (Healthcare Finance 26 Nov)
  •  But New York is a piker in its demands compared to California. The Department of Managed Health Care Director approved the merger based upon:
    • Minimal increases in premiums–and no increase due to acquisition costs
    • Investing $240 million in the state healthcare delivery system, including $166 million for state healthcare infrastructure and employment; $22.8 million to increase the number of healthcare providers in underrepresented areas like Fresno and Walnut Creek by funding scholarships and loan repayment programs; and $22.5 million to support joint ventures and accountable care organizations (ACOs) in value-based care (Healthcare Finance 15 Nov)

A CVS spokesman said in an email after the hearing: “CVS Health and Aetna are one company, and our focus is on transforming the consumer health experience.” (CNBC)  That transformation according to CVS president Larry Merlo involves expanding healthcare services beyond their present clinics to managing high-risk, chronic conditions, and transitions in care. Aetna’s expertise will be invaluable here as well as in an rumored expansion to urgent care (Seeking Alpha). All to out-maneuver Amazon, of course, which is promoting (on TV) PillPack and has applied for additional pharmacy licenses to ship drugs to customers in Washington, New Mexico and Indiana from their Phoenix facility (Healthcare Finance).

It appears that Judge Leon has his own serious reading of the 1974 Tunney Act, which requires a Federal court to ensure the agreement is in the public interest, despite the states and the DOJ.

Comings and goings: CVS-Aetna finalizing, Anthem sued over merger, top changes at IBM Watson Health

imageWhat better way to introduce this new feature than with a picture of a Raymond Loewy-designed 1947 Studebaker Starlight Coupe, where wags of the time joked that you couldn’t tell whether it was coming or going?

Is it the turkey or the stuffing? In any case, it will be the place you’ll be going for the Pepto. The CVS-Aetna merger, CVS says, will close by Thanksgiving. This is despite various objections floated by California’s insurance commissioner, New York’s financial services superintendent, and the advocacy group Consumers Union. CEO Larry Merlo is confident that all three can be dealt with rapidly, with thumbs up from 23 of the 28 states needed and is close to getting the remaining five including resolving California and NY. The Q3 earnings call was buoyant, with CVS exceeding their projected overall revenue with $47.3 billion. up 2.4% or $1.1 billion from the same quarter in 2017. The divestiture of Aetna’s Medicare Part D prescription drug plans to WellCare, helpful in speeding the approvals, will not take effect until 2020. Healthcare Dive speculates, as we did, that a merged CVS-Aetna will be expanding MinuteClinics to create urgent care facilities where it makes sense–it is not a big lift. And they will get into this far sooner than Amazon. which will split its ‘second headquarters’ among the warehouses and apartment buildings of Long Island City and the office towers of Crystal City VA.

Whatever happened to the Delaware Chancery Court battle between Anthem and Cigna? Surprisingly, no news from Wilmington, but that didn’t stop Anthem shareholder Henry Bittmann from suing both companies this week in Marion (Indiana) Superior Court. The basis of the suit is Anthem’s willfully going ahead with the attempted merger despite having member plans under the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association meant the merger was doomed to fail, and they intended all along for “Anthem to swallow, and then sideline, Cigna to eliminate a competitor, in violation of the antitrust laws.” On top of this, both companies hated each other. A match made in hell. Cigna has moved on with its money and bought Express Scripts.

IBM Watson Health division head Deborah DiSanzo departs, to no one’s surprise. Healthcare IT News received a confirmation from IBM that Ms. DiSanzo will be joining IBM Cognitive Solutions’ strategy team, though no capacity or title was stated. She was hired from Philips to lead the division through some high profile years, starting her tenure along with the splashy new Cambridge HQ in 2015, but setbacks mounted later as their massive data crunching and compilation was outflanked by machine learning, other AI methodologies, and blockchain. According to an article in STAT+ (subscription needed), they didn’t get the glitches in their patient record language processing software fixed in ‘Project Josephine’, and that was it for her. High profile partner departures in the past year such as MD Anderson Cancer Centers, troubles and lack of growth at acquired companies, topped by the damning IEEE Spectrum and Der Spiegel articles, made it not if, but when. No announcement yet of a successor.

Cigna’s $69 million acquisition of Express Scripts clears US Department of Justice hurdle

As reported on 8 Sept, the DOJ announced on Monday that they have formally cleared the Cigna acquisition of pharmacy benefits manager Express Scripts. This puts together a major payer with a PBM manager, the latter area considered to be challenged for profitability as the PBM drug rebate model may be substantially less profitable in the future. Federal policy pressure is ramping up from Health & Human Services (HHS), with Secretary Alex Azar only last week promising disruptive change and more transparency in drug pricing.

CVS (PBM-Caremark) with Aetna is in the works and Anthem is creating its own PBM called IngenioRx. UnitedHealthcare has its own OptumRx for some years. 

Another point of pressure on the entire PBM category is the Amazon-Berkshire Hathaway-JP Morgan combine, sometime in the future when the hype and speculation on What Amazon Will Do turns into actual plans beyond their acquisition of tiny, specialized player PillPack for an exorbitant $1bn [TTA 4 July]. 

The DOJ investigation took six months, reviewed more than 2 million documents, and more than 100 industry people were interviewed.

Cigna and Express Scripts now must negotiate over 50 state departments of banking and insurance–over 50 because some states have two. Both companies already have shareholder approval, and the lack of overlap in their businesses limits the possibility of divestitures. Their advocacy website is here. But state DOBIs can be unpredictable, as Cigna found out with Anthem. (Their contentious breakup is still being contested in court–and Cigna could use the contractual breakup money to ease the Express Scripts debt estimated at $15 bn. Forbes.  Bloomberg, Healthcare Dive

What Best Buy’s $800 million cash purchase of GreatCall connected health/PERS really means

Have health and connectedness services for older people finally made it out of the pumpkin and to the ball? GreatCall’s market doesn’t make for great cocktail party buzz or TEDMED talks. It’s emergency response with Jeopardy’s Alex Trebek presenting 5 Star emergency service bundled in a Jitterbug flip or smartphone (made by others). It’s made intelligent acquisitions. taking some of the tech developed by Lively to develop wearables that are quite presentable and by Healthsense for the senior living market. It’s been a leader in how to make both traditional direct marketing (DRTV, print) and digital work for an older market. Somehow, it’s managed to accumulate over 900,000 paying customers, which proved to be very attractive to first PE firm GTCR and now Minneapolis-based Best Buy, which with GreatCall has made its Biggest Buy.

GreatCall will remain a separate division with the same CEO (David Inns, with them since their 2006 founding) and remain HQ’d in San Diego. The transaction is expected to close by end of the third quarter of Best Buy’s fiscal 2019, subject to regulatory approvals.

Best Buy in the US has remained the #1 electronics ‘big box’ store that, like most retail, has stumbled about and come back from the brink. Their purchase of GreatCall, a partner for many years, reinforces a strategy they’ve worked on for a while in featuring health and wellness-related products to what CNBC calls ‘an aging population’ as part of ‘solving technology problems and addressing key human needs across a range of areas.’ GreatCall, as noted above, has a superb track record in direct marketing to that group. (In this context, the former Healthsense B2B play is limited–some of the feedback that this Editor’s received is that GreatCall stumbled out of the gate with Healthsense customers with a lack of understanding of the LTC/senior housing market dynamics. Long term, it seems out of phase with Best Buy’s direction in a way that consumer-oriented Lively is not.)

Will that talent spill over to and influence the rest of Best Buy’s business? Will Best Buy successfully carve out a niche which is relatively resistant to the predations of Amazon (which also sells a lot of health tech) and other online retailers? Is this niche big enough to support this Big Box Retailer? Seeking Alpha, press release, Mobihealthnews

News roundup: Walmart and Microsoft AI, are derm apps endangering public with 88% skin cancer diagnosis?

[grow_thumb image=”http://telecareaware.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/Lasso.jpg” thumb_width=”150″ /]Walmart and Microsoft partner to change the retail experience via AI. The five-year agreement will switch over applications to the cloud and will affect shipping and supply chain. It’s projected in Healthcare Dive that the impact will be in healthcare as well. Microsoft announced last month that it is forming a unit to advance AI and cloud-based healthcare tools. The landscape is under extreme pressure in retail and healthcare delivery, and Walmart needs to ready for future moves which will certainly happen. Walmart is rumored to be interested in acquiring Humana and is currently working with Emory Healthcare in Atlanta. Then there is CVS-Aetna, Cigna-Express Scripts, Google, and (looming above all) Amazon. (Though you can tuck all the years of Amazon’s profits into one year of Walmart’s.)

The ITV News headline grabs attention — but are dermatology apps really endangering the public when teledermatology can help diagnose 88 percent of people with skin cancer and 97 percent of those with benign lesions? A University of Birmingham-led research team did a metastudy of the literature and found three failings: “a lack of rigorous published trials to show they work and are safe, a lack of input during the app development from specialists to identify which lesions are suspicious and flaws in how the technology analyses photos” particularly for scaly or non-pigmented melanomas. But did access to these apps encourage early diagnosis which can lead to up to 100 percent five-year survival? Of course review is required as recommended by the study, but this last factor was not really examined at the British Association of Dermatologists’ annual meeting in Edinburgh. University of Birmingham release with study abstract

Care Innovations sells off Validation Institute. But is there more to the story? And a side of Walmart Health action.

The Health Value Institute, part of Woburn, Massachusetts-based conference organizer World Congress, announced late last week the acquisition of the Validation Institute from Care Innovations. Terms were not disclosed. The Health Value Institute and the Validation Institute recently partnered to validate the outcomes for the Health Value Award finalists and awards this past April at the 15th Annual World Health Care Congress. According to both parties, the acquisition will help to expand the membership of validated companies, and the present offerings for HR, broker, and benefit executives. Release.

The Validation Institute was launched with fanfare back in June 2014, when GE still had a chunk of the company and during the 2 1/2 year repositioning (revival? resuscitation?) led by Sean Slovenski from the doldrums of the prior Louis Burns regime. Mr. Slovenski departed in early 2016 to be president of population health at Healthways/Sharecare, which lasted a little over a year. However, this week Mr. Slovenski made headlines as the new SVP Health & Wellness of Walmart, reporting directly to the head of their US business.  The hiring of a senior executive with a few years at Humana and a short time at Sharecare, another Walmart partner, coupled with several years in healthcare tech and provider-side is certainly indicative of Walmart’s serious focus on healthcare provision. It’s a fascinating race with Amazon and CVS-Aetna–with the mystery of what Walgreens Boots Alliance will do. Also Healthcare Dive.

But back to Care Innovations. Signs of a new direction–and a loss. The case can be made that the Validation Institute, the Jefferson College of Population Health, and validating individuals and companies was no longer core to their business which is centered around their RPM platform Health Harmony (with QuietCare still hanging in there!) However, this Editor notes the prominent addition of  ‘platform-as-a-service’ advisory services for those who are developing health apps, which appears to be a spinoff of their engineering/IT services. Vivify Health, a competitor, already does this. There is a vote of confidence; in June, Roche signed on with a strategic investment (undisclosed) as well as integration of the mySugr integrated diabetes management/app solution (release).

Looking around their recently refreshed website, there is an absence–that of the two or three pages previously dedicated to the Veterans Health Administration (VA) and the press release of the VA award. This tends to lend credence to the rumors that there was a second company that did not pass the Trade Adjustment Act (TAA) requirements that knocked out Iron Bow/Vivify Health from the VA, or for another undisclosed reason CI bowed out of a potentially $258 million five-year contract. If so, that leaves for the VA Medtronic and 1Vision/AMC Health. It’s certainly a limited menu for the supposedly growing numbers of veterans requiring telehealth and a limited choice for their care coordinators–and not quite as presented to the public or the 2015 competitors in the solicitation. Who benefits? Who loses? (Disclosure: This Editor worked for one of the finalists and a VA supplier from 2003, Viterion.)  Hat tip to one of our ‘Industry Insiders’, but the opinions expressed here are her own.

Rock Health’s ‘Another record-breaking first half’ in digital health funding is actually–flat. (With a Soapbox Extra!)

The Breathless Tone was the clue. “It’s déjà vu for digital health, with yet another record breaking half for venture funding.” It was déjà vu, but not of the good sort. This Editor hates to assume, so she checked the year-to-year numbers–and first half 2018 versus 2017 broke no records:

  • 2018:  $3.4 bn invested in 193 digital health deals 
  • 2017: $3.5 bn invested in 188 digital health companies [TTA 11 July 17]

But ‘flat’ doesn’t make for good headlines. Digging into it, there are trends we should be aware of — and Rock Health does a great job of parsing–but a certain wobbliness carried over from 2017 even though the $5.8 bn year finished 32 percent up over 2016, analyzed here [TTA 5 Apr 18]. Their projection for 2018 full year is $6.9 bn and 386 deals.

Let’s take a look at their trends:

  • “The future of healthcare startups is inextricably linked to the strategies of large, enterprise-scale healthcare players—as customers, partners, investors, and even potential acquirers.” It’s no mistake that the big news this week was Amazon acquiring tiny, chronic-conditions specializing prescription supplier PillPack after a bidding war with Walmart for an astounding $1bn, making its 32 year-0ld founder very rich indeed and gaining Amazon pharmacy licenses in 49 states. (Prediction: Walmart will be pleased it lost the war as it will find its own solutions and alliances.) 
    • Enterprise healthcare players are cautious, even by Rock Health’s admission, but the big money is going into deals that vertically integrate and complement, at least for a time–for example, Roche’s purchase of Flatiron Health. And when it doesn’t work, it tends to end in a whimper–this May’s quiet sale by Aetna of Medicity to Health Catalyst for an undisclosed sum. Back in 2011, Aetna bought it for $500 million. (Notably not included in the Rock Health analysis, even though they track Health Catalyst and the HIE/analytics sector.)
  • The market is dependent on big deals getting bigger. If you are well-developed, in the right sector, and mature (as early-stage companies go), you have a better shot at that $100 million B, D, E or Growth funding round. B rounds actually grew a bit, with seed and A rounds dipping below 50 percent for the first time since 2012. 
  • The Theranos Effect is real. Unvalidated, hyped up claims don’t get $900 million anymore. In fact, there’s real concern that there’s a reluctance to fund innovation versus integration. The wise part of this is that large fundings went to companies validating through clinical trial results, FDA clearance (or closing in on it), and CDC blessing.
  • The dabbling investor is rapidly disappearing. 62 percent of investors in first half had made prior investments in digital health including staying with companies in following rounds.
  • Digital health companies, like others, are staying private longer and avoiding public markets. Exits remain on par with 2017 at 60. Speculation is that Health Catalyst and Grand Rounds are the next IPOs, but there hasn’t been one since iRhythm in October 2016. The Digital Health public company index is showing a lot less pink these days as well, which may be an encouraging sign.
  • Behavioral health is finally getting its due. “Behavioral health startups received more funding this half than in any prior six-month period, with a cumulative $273M for 15 unique companies (nearly double the $137M closed in H1 2016, the previous record half for funding of behavioral health companies). Of these 15 companies, more than half have a virtual or on-demand component.”

Keep in mind that Rock Health tracks deals over $2 million in value from venture capital, excluding government and grant funding. They omit non-US deals, even if heavily US funded. 

Their projection for 2018 full year is $6.9 bn and 386 deals. Will their projection pan out? Only the full year will tell!

A Soapbox Extra!

Rock Health, like most Left Coast companies, believes that Vinod Khosla is a semi-deity. This Editor happens to not be convinced, based on predictions that won’t pan out, like machines replacing 80 percent of doctors; making statements such as VCs have less sexual harassment than other areas, and even banning surfers off his beach. He was at a Rock Health forum recently and made this eye-rolling (at least to this Editor) statement:

Is there one area in the last 30 years where the initial innovation was driven by an institution of any sort? I couldn’t think of a single area where innovation—large innovation—came from a big institution. Retailing wasn’t disrupted by Walmart, it was by Amazon. Media wasn’t changed by CBS or NBC, it was by YouTube and Twitter. Cars weren’t transformed by Volkswagen and GM—and people said you can’t do cars in startups—but then came Tesla.

Other than making a point that Clayton Christensen made a decade or more ago, the real nugget to be gained here is that formerly innovative companies that get big don’t grow innovation (though 3M tends to be an exception, and Motorola didn’t do too badly with the cell phone). They can buy it–and always have. 

Go back a few more decades and all of these companies were disrupters–and bought out (or bankrupted) other disrupters. CBS and NBC transformed entertainment through popularizing radio and then TV. VW created the small car market in the US and saved the German auto industry. GM innovated both horizontally (acquiring car companies, starting other brands) and integrated vertically (buying DELCO which created the first truly workable self-starting ignition system in 1912).

YouTube? Bought by innovator Google. Twitter? Waiting, wanting to be bought. Innovation? Khosla is off the beam again. Without Walmart, there would be no Amazon–and Amazon’s total lifetime profit fits nicely into one year of Walmart’s. Tesla is not innovative–it is a hyped up version of electric car technology in a styled package that occasionally blows up and remains on the borderline of financial disaster. (Model 3, where art thou?)

I’d argue that Geisinger, Mayo Clinic, and Intermountain Healthcare have been pretty innovative over the last 30 years. Mr. Khosla, read Mr. Christensen again!

Some more views on (and by) Atul Gawande on the JP Morgan-Berkshire-Amazon health combine

Often the best indicator of the success of a person in a new venture is to examine their own words. An interview with Dr. Gawande in STAT a few days after the Big Reveal of his new position as CEO of the JPM-BH-Amazon healthcare nonprofit indicates that he has an excellent grasp of the task before him. His main points:

  • Before accepting the position, he established that the healthcare company would be an independent entity and not part of the three companies
  • It is also non-profit and not expected to return money to those companies
  • He will be devoting 100 percent to the new job and have it be the number one priority, but he will be with patients and his surgery through at least the summer
  • “My job for them is to figure out ways that we’re going to drive better outcomes, better satisfaction with care, and better cost efficiency with new models that can be incubated for all. That is a tall fricking order. But what they’re saying to me is that resources won’t be the problem. Human behavior will be. And achieving scale will be.”

His speech at AHIP (America’s Health Insurance Plans) annual meeting a day after the announcement pointed out that unnecessary tests and treatments account for about 30 percent of healthcare spending, that our system fails the chronically ill in their needs to be asked about what they want to achieve through treatment, and for doctors to deliver the right and considerate treatment especially in end-of-life care. “Precision medicine has to be matched by precision delivery.”  Healthcare Finance

For the 1 million employees of the three companies, there may not be a lot of chronic illness or end-of-life consideration (people tend to fall out of the workforce under those circumstances). What kind of model will apply to them and save on the 25 percent of estimated healthcare spending which is wasted? The article in Forbes by another ‘big thinker’, Robert Pearl MD, sees a 5-10 year time frame for Dr. Gawande’s task: “…to fundamentally change how healthcare is structured, paid for and provided. He was hired to disrupt the industry, to make traditional health plans obsolete, and to create a bold new future for American healthcare.”

But in the meantime, how will those bank tellers, packers, IT workers, ice cream slingers, and railway workers fare with their health? What will they benefit from in two to three years time? And will the long-term backing and the promises to Dr. Gawande remain after Mr. Dimon, Mr. Buffett, and Mr. Munger (of BH, and possibly why Dr. Gawande is on board) are gone?

The 50,000 foot pick as CEO of the JP Morgan Chase-Berkshire Hathaway-Amazon health joint venture

US healthcare is abuzz at the choice that JP Morgan Chase-Berkshire Hathaway-Amazon made to head their healthcare JV: Dr. Atul Gawande, currently practicing general and endocrine surgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and teaching as a professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Harvard Medical School. Dr. Gawande is presently an executive director of Ariadne Labs, a healthcare innovation center, a writer of four best sellers on healthcare and noted as an outspoken theorist on how the ‘broken’ healthcare system in the US can be fixed. (This Editor’s definition of ‘broken’ is slightly different, encompassing countries like Venezuela, Cuba, Zimbabwe, post-WWII Germany, and the Ceausescu-era Romania where the basics are simply not there for the average person.)

Dr. Gawande will transition to chairman of Ariadne and retain his surgical and teaching positions.

Praise for Dr. Gawande comes from many quarters. Andy Slavitt, the former head of CMS during the previous administration, said “There are few better people in health care” and praised his ‘moral leadership’ when approached by Messrs. Dimon, Bezos, and Buffett. Jeff Bezos: “We said at the outset that the degree of difficulty is high and success is going to require an expert’s knowledge, a beginner’s mind, and a long-term orientation. Atul embodies all three, and we’re starting strong as we move forward in this challenging and worthwhile endeavor.”

What is missing from this sterling public health advocate and practitioner’s resumé is obvious: real business management experience. Among his three soon-to-be-bosses, there is plenty of pontificating from 50,000 feet–for but one example, see this Editor’s POV on Jamie Dimon’s annual shareholder letter [TTA 10 Apr]. Here is what they stated as the purpose of the JV back in January: “partnering on ways to address healthcare for their U.S. employees, with the aim of improving employee satisfaction and reducing costs” and setting up an independent company “free from profit-making incentives and constraints. The initial focus of the new company will be on technology solutions that will provide U.S. employees and their families with simplified, high-quality and transparent healthcare at a reasonable cost.” And more in that vein. (Whew!) It was eye-rolling, even shortly after the announcement back in February.

But actually getting this done is not a TEDTalk. First, there is the hard in-the-trenches work to bring both the management and the 1 million employees of three very different companies onto the same page. Second, it is running the gauntlet of regulations on the national level (that CMS and HHS) plus in 50 states, if this combine chooses to operate as an insurer or PBM. Third, if they don’t, there is getting the cooperation of insurers (payers) who aren’t in business to lose money. There is not only regulation, but also what they are willing and can afford to do. This Editor noted back in January that large companies, including these three, “generally self-insure for healthcare. They use insurers as ASO–administrative services only–in order to lower costs. Which leads to…why didn’t these companies work directly with their insurers to redo health benefits? Why the cudgel and not the scalpel?”

This Editor would expect that a group of skilled senior, operationally focused executives will be hired to work under Dr. Gawande in Boston, where this unnamed-yet venture will be headquartered. There may be some more high-profile senior executives with unconventional backgrounds. From this (lower than 50,000 feet) perspective, Dr. Gawande will be the attention-getting CEO, spokesman, and pace-setter; others will be doing the heavy lifting behind the scrim. 

Beyond the usual glowing coverage on CNBC and TechCrunch, those in the business of healthcare are already expressing more sanguine opinions on the enterprise and how Dr. Gawande will be leading it with multiple medical, teaching, and writing commitments. Modern Healthcare has a fairly balanced article.

Soapbox: JPM’s Dimon takes the 50,000 foot view on the JP Morgan Chase-Berkshire Hathaway-Amazon health joint venture

Mr. Jamie Dimon, the chairman and CEO of JP Morgan Chase, had a few thoughts about the JPM-Berkshire Hathaway-Amazon healthcare JV for all three companies. You’ll have to fill up the tea or coffee mug (make it a small pot) for it’s an exceedingly prolix Annual Shareholder Letter you’ll have to sled through to find those comments. Your Editor has taken her punishment to find them, towards the end of the letter in ‘Public Policy’. 

They demonstrate what this Editor suspected–an headache-inducing mix of generalities and overreach, versus starting modestly and over-delivering.

  • Point #1 sets up what has gone wrong. Among several, “Our nation’s healthcare costs are twice the amount per person compared with most developed nations.” Under point 2 on how poor public policy happened, an admission that Obamacare fixed little:

Here’s another example: We all know that the U.S. healthcare system needs to be reformed. Many have advocated getting on the path to universal healthcare for all Americans. The creation of Obamacare, while a step in the right moral direction, was not well done. America has 290 million people who have insurance — 180 million through private enterprise and 110 million through Medicare and Medicaid. Obamacare slightly expanded both and created exchanges that insure 10 million people. But it did very little to fix our broken healthcare system and has, in fact, torn up the body politic over 10 years — and this tumult may go on for another 10 years.

  • Point #7 is about fixing the deficit and the ill effects if we don’t. In Mr. Dimon’s view, healthcare is a major part of this through the uncontrolled growth of entitlements, with Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security leading the pack–skipping over the fact that nearly all Americans pay into Medicare and SSI well in advance of any entitlement collection. Healthcare is also an offender through unnecessary costs such as administrative and fraud (25-40 percent),  and six mainly chronic conditions accounting for 75 percent of spending.
  • The experts–specifically, their experts–will fix it! “While we don’t know the exact fix to this problem, we do know the process that will help us fix it. We need to form a bipartisan group of experts whose direct charge is to fix our healthcare system. I am convinced that this can be done, and if done properly, it will actually improve the outcomes and satisfaction of all American citizens.”
  • The generalities continue with
    • The JV “will help improve the satisfaction of our healthcare services for our employees (that could be in terms of costs and outcomes) and possibly help inform public policy for the country.” 
    • Aligning incentives systemwide ‘because we’re getting what we incentivize’
    • “Studying the extraordinary amount of money spent on waste, administration and fraud costs.”
    • “Empowering employees to make better choices and have the best options available by owning their own healthcare data with access to excellent telemedicine options, where more consumer-driven health initiatives can help.”
    • “Developing better wellness programs, particularly around obesity and smoking — they account for approximately 25% of chronic diseases (e.g., cancer, stroke, heart disease and depression).”
    • “Determining why costly and specialized medicine and pharmaceuticals are frequently over- and under-utilized.”
    • “Examining the extraordinary amount of money spent on end-of-life care, often unwanted.”
    • “To attack these issues, we will be using top management, big data, virtual technology, better customer engagement and the improved creation of customer choice (high deductibles have barely worked”).

This Editor has observed from the vantage of the health tech, analytics, payer, and care model businesses that nearly every company has addressed or is addressing all these concerns. So what’s new here? Perhaps the scale, but will they tap into the knowledge base those businesses represent or reinvent the wheel? 

A bad sign is Mr. Dimon’s inclusion of ‘end of life care’. This last point is a prime example of overreach–how many of the JV’s employees are in this situation? The ‘attack’ tactics? We’ve seen, heard, and many of us have been part of similar efforts.

Prediction: This JV may be stuck at the 50,000 foot view. It will take a long time, if ever, to descend and produce the concrete, broadly applicable results that it eagerly promises to its million-plus employees, much less the polity. 

Is the Amazon Effect good or bad for consumers–and health tech?

Your busy Editor, who has been on business assignment this past month, has noticed the relative quiet around the subject of How Amazon is Rattling Healthcare. We’ve already noted here the retail and pharmacy/pharmacy benefit effects with CVS-Aetna, Albertsons-Rite Aid, and Cigna-Express Scripts. Aside from the bottom line, and Cigna finally closing a gap with other insurers with pharmacy benefit management services (PBM), is it good for the healthcare consumer as promised? 

Max Nisen’s article in Bloomberg Gadfly (sic) says ‘not so fast’. His argument is as follows:

  • Companies are largely following the lead of UnitedHealth and its Optum units, which integrate not only insurance and PBM but physician groups and analytics.
  • Deals will continue. There’s other insurers like Anthem, Humana, and the regional Blues; urgent clinics like CityMD, AtlantiCare, and MedExpress. Looming above all with clinics and retail pharmacies is Walgreens Boots and on the retail side, other supermarkets like Publix and Ahold Group.
  • Consolidation means fewer alternatives, competition, and thus less downward pricing pressure for both providers and consumers, as options decrease into what resembles a closed system. The merged companies will have debt to pay off, with pressure to pay off lenders and shareholders.

All this is regardless of what Amazon does with JP Morgan Chase and Berkshire Hathaway. Their admirable, seemingly altruistic reasons for this joint venture, in this view, has multiple unintended consequences and negative effects for ordinary folk–and doctors.

As for healthcare technology, when a Big Trend takes the air out of the room–EHRs, ACA, Watson/big data, even wearables, IoT and Big Data– more mundane everyday tech like remote patient monitoring and telecare, which depend on integrating into  healthcare/wellness/chronic care management systems and reimbursement (by those same insurers), tend to suffocate. 

Also of interest: Cigna may be too late to the PBM party (InvestorPlace)

CVS sets it up for Aetna with $40 billion in the third-largest bond sale ever

Obviously, CVS is confident of an approved merger and that it will work. CVS issued $40bn of investment-grade debt today (6 March) to finance the purchase of Aetna, according to sources talking to Bloomberg. The attraction was premium interest and other incentives, up to 1.95 percentage points above Treasuries in the 30-year portion of the nine-part offering. This serves to refinance a bridge loan of $49bn from 20 investors that was taken in December to initially finance the $67.5 bn acquisition. 

By Bloomberg’s calculation, the bond sale ranked only behind $40bn +blockbusters from Verizon (2013) and AB InBev (2016). Analysts and portfolio managers cheered at the terms. It’s expected to close by second half 2018. No word yet from DOJ, however, which asked for additional information on 1 Feb which further extends their waiting period. Mutual shareholder meetings are still scheduled for 20 March [TTA 2 Feb].

Another positive investor take is over at Seeking Alpha, citing excellent fundamentals, a diverse revenue stream, and innovation in “management’s commitment to evolve the company for the future” as well as “trying to revolutionize the doctor-patient-pharmacy relationship, and using its convenience store appeal to support it.” But we knew that already! The article goes on to extrapolate on the Amazon Effect and where CVS, with a bit of tweaking (healthier food choices with pre-made options in stores, much as many Duane Reade/Walgreens have in NYC), could steal a march. (Our prior coverage and mentions are here.)

Retail health convergence and ‘Amazon Effect’ continues with Albertsons’ acquisition of Rite Aid (updated)

The perceived ‘Amazon Effect’ continues. As predicted when the CVS-Aetna merger proposal made its first news last October while the Autumn Leaves were falling (cue the Ferrante and Teicher), other retail shoes would be dropping. Today’s major news is supermarket Albertsons buying most of drug store chain Rite Aid–the 2,600 stores that Walgreens Boots was prohibited from acquiring due to antitrust concerns. (Their eventual deal was for 1,932 stores.)

The terms are cash and stock with an estimated value of the combined companies of $24 billion (WSJ). Present Rite Aid shareholders will take 29 percent of the combined companies and present Albertson shareholders over 70 percent. Another benefit for Albertsons–it’s a quick and easy way to go public without an IPO using Rite Aid’s public status to effect a reverse takeover merger. It solves for Rite Aid (and Walgreens) the large problem of the unsold Rite Aid stores. 

Albertsons’ 2,200 supermarkets are in 38 states and the District of Columbia and comprise multiple brands such as Safeway and Acme in addition to Albertsons. Rite Aid stand-alone stores will continue to operate under their brand name as will most in-store pharmacies. The Rite Aid CEO John Standley will become CEO of the combined company with the Albertsons CEO moving up to chairman. CNBC, Seeking Alpha

Updated: For your weekend reading, here’s Jane Sarasohn-Kahn’s measured take on this acquisition in her HealthPopuli.

Who’s next? Place your bets here in Comments!

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

[grow_thumb image=”http://telecareaware.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/canary-in-the-coal-mine.jpgw595.jpeg” thumb_width=”150″ /]This 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.