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.

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)

Scary Monsters, Take 3: one week later, JPMorgan Chase takes heat, Amazon speculation, industry skepticism

It’s the Week After the Amazon/Berkshire Hathaway/JPMorgan Chase announcement of their partnership in a non-profit joint venture to lower healthcare costs for their 1.1 million employees, and there’s a bit of a hangover. Other than a few articles, there’s been relative quiet on this front. This could be attributed to the financial markets’ roller coaster over the past few days, at least in part due to this as healthcare stocks were hardest hit. In the US, healthcare is estimated to be 18 percent of the economy based on Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) actuarial statistics for 2015…and growing. 

Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMC, had some ‘splainin’ to do with some of the bank’s healthcare clients, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal (paywalled) summarized on MarketWatch. He assured them that the JV would be to serve only the employees of the three companies. JPMC bankers handling the healthcare sector also needed some reassuring as they are “paid handsomely to help clients with mergers and other deals and worry the move could cost them business.”

Speculation on Amazon’s doings in healthcare remains feverish. A more sober look is provided by the Harvard Business Review which extrapolates how healthcare fits into Amazon’s established strength in delivery systems. Amazon could deliver routine healthcare via retail locations (Whole Foods, Amazon Go), same day prescription delivery, passive data capture developed for Amazon Go sold as a service to healthcare providers (on the model of Web Services), and data analytics.

Headlines may have trumpeted that the three-way partnership would ‘disrupt healthcare’, but our Readers in the business have heard this song before. While agreeing with their intent, this Editor differed almost immediately with the initial media cheering [TTA 31 Jan]. The Twitterverse Healthcare FlashMob in short order took it down and apart. STAT racks up some select tweets: in the ACO model, savings come when providers avoid low-value care; the contradiction of profitable companies avoiding profit; that the removal of healthy employees from existing plans will increase inequity and the actuarial burden upon the less insurable; the huge regulatory hurdle; and the dim view of investment advisory firm Piper Jaffray that it will not be a ‘meaningful disruptor’. 

In this Editor’s view, there will be considerable internal politicking, more unease from JPMC customers, and a long time before we find out what these three will be doing.

CVS-Aetna: DOJ requests additional information at deadline (updated for CVS earnings)

[grow_thumb image=”http://telecareaware.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/canary-in-the-coal-mine.jpgw595.jpeg” thumb_width=”150″ /]The Canary Tweets. The sources [TTA 8 Dec] were correct that the Department of Justice (DOJ) would take the lead on reviewing the CVS-Aetna merger. Yesterday (1 Feb) they did, requesting additional information. This extends the waiting period for an additional 30 days or more.  The CVS Form 8-K (SEC), which reports the request for information, is here courtesy of Seeking Alpha.

The US law governing this is the Hart-Scott-Rodino Act Antitrust Improvements Act of 1976 (HSR). A pre-merger notification and report was filed with DOJ and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) on 2 January. There’s a 30-day period for an additional information request and that was taken by the DOJ yesterday. The length of the compliance process may extend for 30 days but may be less if the request is satisfied or more if requested by the parties involved. 

CVS and Aetna still hope to complete the merger by the second half of 2018. The respective shareholder meetings are already scheduled for 20 March. Our previous coverage here.

Editor’s thoughts: CVS-Aetna, despite its size, is a relatively straightforward merger, but because of its nature and size, expect some political haymaking and delays to come. This will be a preview of the action around the Amazon-Berkshire Hathaway-JPMorgan Chase cooperative partnership, in whatever they decide to create, if they create: “there’s many a slip twixt cup and lip.”

Updated for 4th Quarter Financials: CVS is reasonably healthy and nimble. Their earnings report is positive in earnings, operating profit, and reinvestment versus prior year. Under US securities law, it’s silent on Aetna. Form 8-K and press release via Seeking Alpha.

Scary Monsters, Take 2: Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, JPMorgan Chase’s addressing employee healthcare

Shudders through the US financial markets resulted from Tuesday’s Big Reveal of an Amazon-Berkshire Hathaway-JPMorgan Chase combine. Ostensibly they will be “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.” This and the Warren Buffett quote about ballooning healthcare costs being a “hungry tapeworm” on the American economy have gained the most notice. Mr. Bezos’ and Mr. Dimon’s statements are anodyne. The company will initially and unsurprisingly be spearheaded by one representative from each company. The combined companies have 1.1 million employees. Release. CNBC.

There is a great deal in those lead quotes which is both cheering and worrisome. To quote a long time industry insider in the health tech/med device area, “What this tells me is finally, enough pain has been felt to actually try to do something. We need more of this.” This Editor notes the emphasis on ‘technology solutions’ which at first glance is good news for those of us engaged in 1) healthcare tech and 2) innovative care models.

But what exactly is meant by ‘technology’? And will they become an insurer?

What most of the glowing initial comments overlooked was the Absolute Torture of Regulation around American healthcare. If this combine chooses to operate as an insurer or as a PBM, for starters there are 50 states to get through. Each state has a department of insurance–in California’s case, two. Recall the Aetna-Humana and Cigna-Anthem mergers had to go through the gauntlet of approval by each state and didn’t succeed. PBM regulation varies by state, but in about half the US states there are licensing regulations either through departments of insurance or health. On the Federal level, there’s HHS, various Congressional committees, Commerce, and possibly DOJ.

Large companies 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?

Lest we forget, the Affordable Care Act (ACA, a/k/a Obamacare) mandated what insurance must cover–and it ballooned costs for companies because additional coverages were heaped upon the usual premium increases. Ask any individual buyer of health insurance what their costs were in 2012 versus 2017, and that’s not due to any tapeworm. Forbes

Conspicuously not mentioned were doctors, nurses, and other healthcare providers. How will this overworked, abused, and stressed-out group, on whose shoulders all this will wind up being heaped, fare? And what about hospitals and their future? Health systems? The questions will multiply.

Disruption is now the thing this year. Of course, shares of healthcare companies took a beating today, many of which do business with these three companies: CNBC names Cigna, Express Scripts, CVS, Aetna (themselves partnering for innovation), and UnitedHealthGroup. Amazon uses Premera Blue Cross (a non-profit). 

Because of Amazon’s recent moves in pharmacy [TTA 23 Jan], there is much focus on Amazon, but the companies with direct financial and insurance experience are…JPMChase and Berkshire Hathaway.

An Editor’s predictions:

  • Nothing will be fast or simple about this, given the size and task. 
  • The intentions are good but not altruistic. Inevitably, it will focus on what will work for these companies but not necessarily for others or for individuals.
  • An insurer–or insurers–will either join or be purchased by this combine in order to make this happen.

Hat tips to Toni Bunting and our anonymous insider.