Disruption or dud? Mixed reaction for Amazon-Berkshire-JPMorgan healthcare plan

The partnership among Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase to address the “hungry tapeworm” of rising healthcare costs may be a major disruption for the industry’s traditional participants. It could be just another employer-led initiative limited to benefitting workers within those companies, according to financial analysts.

The announcement did send other healthcare stocks tumbling on the morning of Jan. 29, including those involved in other potentially disruptive partnerships like CVS Health and Aetna. Moody’s had said their proposed $69 million deal could reshape the entire health plan market and negatively impact other healthcare companies.

The Amazon-Berkshire-JPMorgan entity “could be disruptive,” according to Moody’s vice president Mickey Chadha, and put new pressure on pharmacy benefit managers. But since it involves three companies relatively new to the industry, the regulatory burden puts them “at a huge disadvantage” for contracting with vendors and serving clients.

“In light of today’s announcement, the potential merger of CVS and Aetna is even more compelling as a more coordinated approach to medical care is necessary to lower the overall healthcare costs for consumers,” Chadha said in a statement to HealthExec.

Barclays sounded more positive in its research note to clients, saying while the details of partnership are minimal, it could be “a long-term opportunity for these major employers to drive down the rate of increase of healthcare costs and therefore improve their bottom line.”

“We are never dismissive of anything disruptive that Amazon is involved in. Amazon arguably has the best technical abilities of any company we cover, hence this is a development we will be watching closely,” wrote Barclays analyst Ross Sandler.

Despite Amazon’s disruptive reputation, the idea of large employers wanting to band together to lower their workers’ healthcare costs isn’t new. The Healthcare Transformation Alliance started in 2016 and now includes more than 40 companies and 6 million covered lives, while large purchasers have emphasized hospitals and medical groups have to embrace value-based care principles to gain their business.

RBC Capital Markets analyst George Hill called the partnership “intriguing,” but not enough to disrupt the industry immediately. Such power, he said, can likely only be found in the federal government.

“At first glance this initiative seems to have little market clout with respect to impacting healthcare costs and would not seem to have the capability to displace established players,” he said in a research note.

To those with more experience with emerging technologies in healthcare, however, this partnership holds considerable promise. Artem Petakov, co-founder of health app maker Noom Coach, said these companies could push “the boundaries of telehealth and digital therapeutics,” use their size to push back regulatory barriers and leverage their one million employees to test out concepts to succeed where traditional mergers involving insurers and providers have failed—actually bending the cost curve.

“I simply don't see traditional healthcare companies changing the system,” he told HealthExec. “They are too set in their ways and historically they have profited off the rising cost of healthcare, so why would they want to curtail it? I think only a player like Amazon—or some kid who doesn't know a thing about healthcare dreaming in her basement—could drive the innovation needed to make a truly meaningful change.”