You may have heard the big news that came out of Seattle recently: Amazon is partnering with Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase to address health care costs and quality by creating an independent health care company for their employees. Further details of their plan remain a secret to the general public, and the companies are likely still working out logistics amongst themselves. Given the 1.2 million employees involved in the three companies, however, many in the health care industry are thinking through the likely impact of this new partnership.
Director of the CHOICE Institute and professor of health economics at the University of Washington, Anirban Basu was recently referenced in two regional blogs describing the potential significance of the proposed plan:
According to Anirban Basu, a health care economist at the University of Washington, the trio could do a number of things to reform the health care system just by their sheer size and power alone. While most small and individual health care buyers have little power when it comes to directly negotiating with either health care providers or pharmaceutical companies, this partnership could change that—at least for those who qualify for it. Currently, price negotiating falls on third-party pharmacy benefit managers, at a cost then passed on to consumers.
Besides taking on bargaining power, Basu says Amazon may even open primary care clinics for their employees, but this could expand beyond their base.
It is important to note that while the new health plan may eventually have industry-wide effects, its scope will be limited to the companies’ employees at the beginning. And it is hardly a new phenomenon for employer groups to choose self-insurance as a means to control costs.
Henry Ford was one of the first industry giants to start his own health care insurance and delivery system in 1915, and America’s largest managed care organization, Kaiser Permanente, originally started as a health care program for employees of the Kaiser steel mills and shipyards.
Another important item to note is that America’s health care system has already been undergoing fundamental changes. While the United States Congress remains divided about how to move forward with the Affordable Care Act and improve the nation’s health care system overall, private health care companies are making their own moves. Hospital and insurance markets are becoming increasingly consolidated (with less competition to control prices), and some health care stakeholders are partnering and consolidating in innovative ways to capture market share (for example, the pharmacy company CVS Health just bought insurance company Aetna in January 2018).
Amazon’s new health care company could simply be joining these trends: historic trends of self-insuring companies to cut costs or newer trends of consolidating aspects of American health care for increased market power. However, it is entirely conceivable that the potent combination of Amazon (a technology industry giant), JPMorgan Chase (a banking industry giant), and Berkshire Hathaway (an investment giant) will bring something new to the table. Vox and StaTECHery are among many media outlets offering interesting predictions.
After the announcement, stock prices for major health care industries (e.g., Anthem, UnitedHealth, CVS, and Walgreens) experienced a sell-off as investors worry about the implications. However, experts believe that the current market would weather the storm due to the massive operational costs necessary for the partnership to enter the health care market. Moreover, the scale of Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, and JPMorgan Chase will not be enough to compete with larger health care industry giants that already have purchasing power.
Will this health care partnership be a game changer? Perhaps, perhaps not. But as health care economists and health policy enthusiasts, students at the CHOICE Institute will certainly be watching our neighbors with interest.
[Written with the assistance of Mark Bounthavong and Nathaniel Hendrix.]