Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, JPMorgan Chase make major move into US employee health care

January 30, 2018
by Thomas Dworetzky, Contributing Reporter
Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, and JPMorgan Chase are teaming up to form an independent company that will tackle the task of improving their employer-covered health care.

Their aim is “improving on ways to address health care for their U.S. employees, with the aim of improving employee satisfaction and reducing costs,” the trio announced Tuesday in a statement.

“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. Success is going to require talented experts, a beginner’s mind, and a long-term orientation,” said the companies.

Importantly, the three firms stated that they “will pursue this objective through an independent company that is free from profit-making incentives and constraints.”

At first the major focus will be on technology to give U.S. employees and their families “simplified, high-quality and transparent health care at a reasonable cost.”

The move brings together three extremely important and influential firms – with major footprints in retail, banking and insurance – to take on a goal that has so far eluded others.

“The ballooning costs of health care act as a hungry tapeworm on the American economy,” stressed the companies.

“Our group does not come to this problem with answers. But we also do not accept it as inevitable. Rather, we share the belief that putting our collective resources behind the country’s best talent can, in time, check the rise in health costs while concurrently enhancing patient satisfaction and outcomes,” said Berkshire Hathaway Chairman and CEO, Warren Buffett.

Amazon's founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, who had long been rumored to be making moves into the health space, added that “the health care system is complex, and we enter into this challenge open-eyed about the degree of difficulty.”

He underscored the importance of the effort, despite the challenges.

“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.”

JPMorgan Chase Chairman and CEO Jamie Dimon, whose organization is the largest U.S. bank by assets, observed that, “our people want transparency, knowledge and control when it comes to managing their health care,” adding that, “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.”

So far the effort is just in initial planning. The company will be led by Todd Combs, an investment officer of Berkshire Hathaway; Marvelle Sullivan Berchtold, a Managing Director of JPMorgan Chase; and Beth Galetti, a Senior Vice President at Amazon.

To date there have been no announcements about more detailed plans, such as location of the company's headquarters or other management details.

“It could be big,” Segal Group's Ed Kaplan, who cuts health care deals for large employers, told The New York Times. “Those are three big players, and I think if they get into health care insurance or the health care coverage space they are going to make a big impact.”

The move comes on the heels of other mega health care deals.

In December, 2017, for example, CVS Health, the largest pharmacy health care provider in the U.S., agreed to acquire Aetna.

Aetna chairman and CEO Mark Bertolini reassured members at the time that the deal “will have no immediate effect on your benefits,” adding that, “we will use CVS Health’s footprint of more than 9,700 retail stores and 1,100 in-store clinics to establish entirely new community health hubs dedicated to improving consumer well-being and answering questions about health, prescription drugs and health care benefits.”

While the deal will clearly get regulatory scrutiny, noted Bertolini to Bloomberg, it will also allow a vertical integration that some say is a response to fears surrounding Amazon's potential to disrupt the market.

“We think of it as creating a new front door to health care in America,” said CVS Health’s chief executive, Larry J. Merlo, according to the The New York Times.

Aetna stated that the deal would fill “an unmet need" in the current health care system “increasing numbers of consumers are taking on more and more responsibility for paying for their health care as the burden of costs is being shifted to them,” according to the company.

The move comes after a search for deals across many sectors of health care by the retail drug chain in an effort to squeeze profits out of combinations of varied businesses in the fast-changing health care landscape.

CVS had also reached out to Anthem about a sale, and UnitedHealth Group as well, unnamed sources told the Wall Street Journal.

At that time, noted Bloomberg, Amazon was reported to have gotten pharmacy-wholesaler licenses in a dozen states. “Size and scale-wise, they can disrupt anywhere they want to disrupt,” noted Chip Davis, president of the Association for Accessible Medicines.