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)

click to enlargeThe 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.