Will Amazon's Joint Healthcare Venture Make You Smile?

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Amazon has revolutionized so many aspects of our lives, and now the big question is: will they revolutionize healthcare?  It seemed that way, given their joint announcement on January 30th with Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase, claiming they were teaming up to form a healthcare company “free from profit-making incentives and constraints.”  While the intended goal of this joint venture is “to improve U.S. employee satisfaction while reducing overall costs,” Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase explained, “the three of our companies have extraordinary resources, and our goal is to create solutions that benefit our U.S. employees, their families and, potentially, all Americans."  This announcement sent shockwaves throughout the market, as the stocks for major insurers and healthcare companies went tumbling.  Market analysts began waging their predictions for what this new company would look like—Alexa for employee benefits?  Diagnostic wearable technology?  What could it be?  To calm the fears of JPMorgan Chase’s clients, company representatives tempered the message, explaining that the initiative can be compared to a group purchasing organization, similar to the type of setup used by hospitals to buy supplies, so the 3 companies could leverage better deals for their employees.

Whoa, Nellie.

OK, maybe we all got a bit ahead of ourselves.  Warren Buffet, who compared healthcare’s skyrocketing costs to a “hungry tapeworm on the American economy” admitted that the three companies do “not come to this problem with answers.”  But he resolutely stated that they did not need to accept the current state of healthcare.  Bezos went on to say, “hard as it might be, reducing health care’s burden on the economy while improving outcomes for employees and their families would be worth the effort.”  These companies bring serious purchasing power to the healthcare market.  Amazon, JPMorgan Chase and Berkshire Hathaway have a combined market cap of $1.62 trillion, and between all 3 companies there are 1.2 million employees.  Last year, JPMorgan alone spent $1.25 billion on medical benefits for U.S. employees where the medical plan covers almost 300,000 individuals, including employees and their family members.

What will this healthcare partnership most likely look like?

While we can’t predict what this solution will evolve to become over time, JPMorgan disclosed a crucial piece of information following the joint venture announcement—that the initiative can be compared to “a group purchasing organization.”  The overall goal of this initiative is to cut healthcare costs and to improve employee satisfaction.  So the best way we can understand what this joint venture solution will be is to look at the current state of employee healthcare for these companies.

Hint: follow the money

Taking a look at who is currently making a profit off of Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase’s healthcare benefits is a good place to start when we’re asking ourselves what this new healthcare company will look like. 

A 30-second tutorial on health benefits

But it’s useful to take a 30 second detour for anyone unfamiliar with the employer healthcare market to understand where these companies are coming from.  These days, most employers with over 1000 employees “self insure” for their healthcare benefits, meaning they pay health claims for their associates from dollar 1.  For large employers, and especially for jumbo employers like Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase, it’s simply more cost-effective to pay for healthcare in this manner—they tend to not need to pay a health insurance company to take on the financial risk of their “sickest,” most costly employees (i.e. people who require major surgeries or treatments, those requiring costly medications or people with multiple chronic illnesses).  Employers like this work with a health insurance company (for instance, United Healthcare, Aetna, Blue Cross) to perform the administrative functions of paying providers and settling claims.  Either the health insurance company or a pharmacy benefits manager will handle the pharmacy side of employee healthcare claims.

Large employers such as these 3 have been using innovative tactics to control healthcare costs for years.  From using healthcare analytics to strategically manage wasteful spending to moving health clinics right into their corporate offices, large employers historically have been ahead of the game with managing healthcare spending.  After all, it’s Warren Buffet who notoriously said, “GM is a health and benefits company with an auto company attached,” understanding that because healthcare is the first or second highest company expense, that portion of the “business” must be managed as strategically as any other business unit.

Mission critical: cut out middleman expenses, cut down on employee healthcare headaches

So back to the original question of, “who profits from Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase’s healthcare spending today?”  Here’s a sampling of the likely suspects who are middlemen in the game of keeping employees and their families healthy:

1.       Health insurer(s) (United Healthcare, Aetna), who charge an administrative fee for settling medical claims

2.       Clinical condition managers (often employed by the health insurer) who help to coordinate care for employees with chronic conditions such as diabetes, cancer, heart conditions

3.       Wellness service companies such as Limeaid or Virgin Pulse, who administer health-related educational programming, employee health screenings, incentive programs to encourage employees to see their doctor and stay active, and fitness challenges to encourage physical activity and healthy behaviors

4.       Pharmacy benefits managers or related pharmacy services, such as Optum or CVS who take care of prescription drug claims and/or cost-management

5.       Surgery cost-bundling vendors who negotiate with medical providers to receive more competitive, bundled rates on surgeries and costly medical tests

6.       Health analytics companies such as Truven (IBM) or Medeanalytics who use health and pharmacy data from employee claims to help with strategic healthcare cost management

7.       Telemedicine vendors who offer the availability of doctors via phone for employees who need to discuss a health concern, but cannot see a doctor in person (or cannot wait for an appointment)

8.       Health advocates and/or health “concierges” that exist to help employees navigate the confusion of the health system to better understand services that are in and out of network, applicable deductibles and coinsurance

9.       Employee benefits platforms that exist so employees can understand the specifics of all benefits available to them, including health insurance and pharmacy coverage, and employee health savings accounts

10.   Benefits brokers and consultants who help to manage the coordination of all these programs and manage vendors

Understanding that the goal is to cut healthcare costs, it’s this list of middlemen who may be on the chopping block, as their services may potentially be replaced by this new joint venture.  For instance, these 3 companies may form a non-profit company to handle settling their employee claims (the job which is currently done by the health plan).  Similar to many health insurance companies, managing chronic diseases, managing pharmacy costs and offering wellness services could be companion services offered by this new venture.  Only these services would likely be more effective than those of a health insurer because the company would solely exist to keep employees healthy—not to make money.  And since profit would not be the motive, access to healthcare analytics to enable strategic management of costs and population health would be more transparent, truly existing for the benefit of Amazon, JPMorgan and Berkshire Hathaway.  There are many possible solutions that will save healthcare dollars and improve employee satisfaction for these companies, but the most likely solution will incorporate some form of replacement of some or all of these 10 services that employers use to provide healthcare coverage, to manage healthcare costs, or to help employees better leverage healthcare services for better health outcomes.

So will this forward-thinking trifecta hack healthcare to solve the problem of rising costs for the rest of the country?  Perhaps in time.  But the more significant message in this bold move is that Amazon, JPMorgan and Berkshire Hathaway have taken a public stand to say that they will not accept the status quo of healthcare in the United States.  The rising costs, the confusion of employees trying to navigate the tangled healthcare maze, and the overall lack of improvement in employee health can no longer be accepted as the norm.  And as this solution begins to take shape, it will send ripples through the healthcare space, as a new expectation takes priority in employer-sponsored healthcare—getting healthcare shouldn’t be so difficult, it shouldn’t cost so much, and healthcare should be making people healthier.  Now there’s a change that will bring a smile. 

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BetaXAnalytics is a healthcare data consulting firm that helps employers to reduce their healthcare spending through proven strategies to contain costs. For more insights on using data to drive healthcare, pharmacy and wellbeing decisions, follow BetaXAnalytics on Twitter @betaxanalytics, Facebook @bxanalytics and LinkedIn at BetaXAnalytics.

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