Optum rumored on the digital health acquisition hunt again with AbleTo virtual behavioral health

Optum, the part of UnitedHealthGroup that runs engagement, technology, and financial services for UHG, is in advanced negotiations to acquire AbleTo, a New York City-based behavioral health and virtual therapy provider, according to CNBC. Unusually, there is also a number attached: $470 million, about 10 times their forward revenue.

AbleTo is already well acquainted with Optum, as their Ventures arm provided financing in January 2019 in a corporate round. Over the past 12 years, the company has raised close to $47 million through a Series D. Interestingly, one of the early investors was Aetna, pre-CVS. Crunchbase

Optum of late has been on an acquisition tear, with first dialysis provider DaVita for $5 billion and then telehealth/remote patient monitoring company Vivify Health for an undisclosed but certainly far less amount. AbleTo is attractive not only in the context of telehealth (at last the belle of the ball!) but also for the underserved behavioral health market. Confirmation of its attractiveness? A fresh crop of competitors such as Quartet Health, Lyra, and ‘traditional’ telemedicine providers such as Doctor on Demand.

AbleTo was founded by Michael Laskoff, at one time quite the ‘face’ in the NYC digital health scene, who went on some years back to found another behavioral health company, Annum Health, focusing on alcohol addiction. AbleTo is one of the pioneers of virtual therapy, both telephonic and audio/video, using care teams of coaches and LCSWs to provide short-term cognitive therapy sessions. It is certainly an underserved market with over 50 percent of those researched citing cost and stigma to not obtain treatments, with about 2/3rds surprisingly under age 50, but not surprisingly about half with one or more chronic conditions. Most of its business is with payers and self-funded companies, although it still offers individual therapy plans.   Mobihealthnews

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.