The three U.S. corporate giants say their new venture will work to improve employee care and lower costs "free from profit-making incentives and constraints."
Amazon — thought for years to be weighing an entry into health care — landed there with an unexpected splash Tuesday, revealing plans to form a joint venture with Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase that’s charged with lowering the cost of caring for employees.
It is unclear what exactly they plan to build; an early-morning news release offered few details. But the scale of the companies behind the plan caught the health care industry’s attention on Tuesday.
America’s largest online retailer, its biggest bank by assets, and Buffett’s sprawling conglomerate collectively employ more than 1 million people globally. Hundreds of thousands of them are in the U.S., including more than 300,000 of the 541,900 people on Amazon’s payroll when the company disclosed its head count in October.
Buffett called the rising cost of health care “a hungry tapeworm on the American economy.”
“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,” he said in a statement.
The new entity is described as a long-term venture, and “free from profit-making incentives and constraints,” though it’s unclear if it will be incorporated as a nonprofit. An initial focus, the companies said, would be on technology that provides their U.S. employees with simplified health care at a reasonable cost.
Investors scrambled on Tuesday to assess the impact of the new venture on existing U.S. health care providers, some of whom had been wary of Amazon’s long-rumored move into the health care market.
“There hasn’t been a new competitor with this magnitude of resources in the employee health care space for a very long time,” said Mickey Chadha, an analyst with Moody’s who tracks drugstores like CVS and Walgreens.
Shares of insurers and health care services companies slumped Tuesday. Cigna closed down 7.2 percent, Anthem 5.3 percent, UnitedHealth 4.4 percent and CVS 4.1 percent. JPMorgan and Berkshire were down less than 1 percent in a broadly falling market, while Amazon bucked the trend, climbing 1.4 percent.
“They’re big players, and you never want to underestimate Amazon’s ability to change a market,” said Aaron Katz, a lecturer focused on health care policy at the University of Washington School of Public Health. “These are people who have been successful in business, and they are trying to apply that to a big problem that they see.”
Still, Katz cautioned that there’s a long history of companies and entrepreneurs seeking technological or consumer-related fixes to the systemic problems with the U.S. health care system, where people pay more for worse outcomes than is the norm in other developed nations.
Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos acknowledged that challenge in a prepared statement.
“The health care system is complex, and we enter into this challenge open-eyed about the degree of difficulty,” he said. “Hard as it might be, reducing healthcare’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.”
The new company’s management team, headquarters and other details will be announced later, the companies said. The effort is being led initially by Berkshire Hathaway investment officer Todd Combs, JPMorgan Managing Director Marvelle Sullivan Berchtold, and Amazon vice president and human-resources chief Beth Galetti.
Katz, the UW lecturer, suspects a relatively easy first step for the new venture would be to build tools to help employees get information about insurance plans and choices of providers or individual treatments.
More difficult tasks, he said, would include entering the prescription drug supply chain or starting retail clinics for employees.
There’s some precedent for employers, or employee cooperatives, taking health care into their own hands.
Cambia Health Solutions, an insurance company based in Portland, traces its roots to an insurance pool for loggers founded in 1917. And the Kaiser Permanente health system got its start when industrialist Henry Kaiser built out an insurance plan and hospitals to provide care for his companies’ employees.
Analysts with Credit Suisse suggested a far more limited approach. Amazon, they said in a note to clients, could use its technology prowess to improve image recognition in medical diagnostics, or use predictive analytics to encourage employees to take steps for their own preventive care.