The CVS-Aetna hearing is on the move–finally

The train that is the CVS-Aetna hearing, in the courtroom presided over by Judge Richard Leon of the US District Court for the District of Columbia, is at long last chugging down the tracks. And Pauline is still tied up. Tuesday 4 June was Day 1 of this hearing. Early reports are just being filed. The issue is whether Judge Leon will authorize the Department of Justice’s approval of the merger or dissolve a closed merger, based on his authority under the Tunney Act and his own repeated intent to search for harm that the merger might do to the public. 

Today’s hearing focused on Aetna’s divestiture of its Medicare Part D business as a prelude to the merger, and whether it was quite enough. Much of the discussion was on the relative strength of the buyer, WellCare (itself in the early stages of being acquired), and whether it could be truly competitive in the Part D market. The other factor is that CVS as a dominant pharmacy benefits manager (PBM) could undermine WellCare in several ways. PBMs operate opaquely and are highly concentrated, with CVS, Optum (UnitedHealthcare), and Cigna-Express Scripts accounting for 70 percent of the market. Modern Healthcare

Other issues for Days 2 and 3 will cover the effects on competition in health insurance, retail pharmacy and specialty pharmacy.

Healthcare Dive discusses how these hearings are already setting precedent on how Tunney Act hearings are conducted, their scope (Judge Leon has ruled against every attempt by CVS-Aetna to limit it), and the unprecedented live testimony.  There is the good possibility that Judge Leon will decide to dissolve the merger for competitive reasons, which DOJ likely would appeal. Add to this the cost of the delayed integration and the precedent set by the District Court on scrutiny of any healthcare merger, and this tedious hearing along with Judge Leon’s actions leading to it hold major consequences.

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

CVS-Aetna, Cigna-Express Scripts reportedly on road to merger approval; Athenahealth in hostile takeover–or not (updated)

CVS’ pickup of Aetna, and Cigna‘s acquisition of Express Scripts are reported to be clearing the Department of Justice anti-trust review within the next few weeks, just in time for pumpkin season. The DOJ may have concerns on some assets related to Medicare drug coverage and may require a sell-off to resolve them. One potential buyer is WellCare Health Plans, which this week completed its acquisition of Meridian Health Plans and entered the S&P 500 on Monday. The Cigna-Express Scripts combine may not require any asset selloff. Seeking Alpha (report is from the Wall Street Journal).

The once blazingly hot Athenahealth is up for sale but can’t seem to get arrested by another healthcare company. Both Cerner and UnitedHealthcare passed on an acquisition. One of the larger shareholders, Elliot Management, initiated moves toward a hostile takeover in May, and in the process managed to oust founder and CEO Jonathan Bush on still-murky charges of past domestic abuse and workplace sexual harassment. Mr. Elliot is partnering with Bain Capital which owns Waystar, a revenue cycle management (RCM) company from the merged ZirMed and Navicure. Waystar could benefit from Athenahealth’s systems and IP. Mr. Bush would receive a relatively small sum in a sale –$4.8 million– with new executive chair and former GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt earning $150,000 a month in salary and $150,000 in restricted stock perhaps looking for a new job. Elliot’s reputation is that of a corporate raider–taking over businesses to strip assets and sell off the remains. New York Post, POLITICO Morning eHealth.

UPDATED 19 Sept Reports from yesterday indicate that Mr. Elliot has ‘balked’ at the $160 per share price that Athenahealth is asking, and may be angling for a lower price, according to the NY Post report. Reportedly no one else–Cerner and UnitedHealthcare–is interested, though Athenahealth has extended the bid deadline to 27 September. There may be problems uncovered by the due diligence. It’s also a recognized hardball lowball strategy to get the share price way down. The industry is betting on the latter because the former is difficult to contemplate for customers and healthcare as a whole. Also HealthcareITNews.

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

Department of Justice won’t challenge CVS-Aetna merger: report

DOJ, stay away from our doors! The $69 bn CVS Health and Aetna mega-merger looks like it will go sailing down that river, if Mr. Market is right. Shares in both companies enjoyed a nice bump on today’s report that the DOJ won’t challenge this merger. The local Hartford Courant is relieved that Aetna plans to stay in their longtime HQ city (since 1853), conveniently omitting their long-standing plan to set up a big shop in NYC. CNBC

What a difference from a year ago when two mega-mega-mergers, Aetna-Humana and Anthem-Cigna, were shot d0wn–nay, riddled with bullets–in the Senate and in two courts [TTA 9 Feb 17]. Cigna is still living with the hangover of their bad breakup with Anthem, with a fight over a nearly $1.9 bn breakup fee [TTA 17 May 17] continuing in the Delaware Chancery Court in 2019.  Cigna nixed any other insurers in a horizontal merger and sought out Express Scripts, a pharmacy benefits manager (PBM) which was reeling a bit after its largest client (coincidentally) Anthem departed. Anthem sued its PBM, Express Scripts, for $15 billion, alleging the PBM overcharged it by $3 billion annually The merger will cost them over $550 million in transaction cost and that is just the beginning. That $1.9 bn would sure come in handy. Modern Healthcare 

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.