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.