‘Sky’s the limit’ for joint venture
Amazon, Buffett and JPMorgan to create independent health care company
Three of corporate America’s heaviest hitters — Amazon, Warren Buffett and JPMorgan Chase — sent a shudder through the health care industry Tuesday when they announced plans to jointly create a company to provide their employees with high-quality, affordable care.
The announcement was short on details about precisely what the independent company will do. But given the three players’ outsize influence — and Amazon’s ability to transform just about everything it touches — the alliance has the potential to shake up how Americans shop for health care, and the stocks of insurance companies, drug distributors and others slumped in reaction.
“One of the messages they are sending is they’ve given up on traditional ways in which employers have tried to reduce costs or manage costs better,” said Paul Fronstin, an economist with the nonprofit Employee Benefits Research Institute.
Benefits experts speculated this new company could create a virtual marketplace that makes shopping for health care as easy as buying a shirt on Amazon. Or
it could move directly into buying prescription drugs. Or it could be a system that bypasses insurance companies altogether and contracts directly with doctors and hospitals for better deals.
Employers are up for trying almost anything to control rising health care costs, which have been consuming bigger portions of their budgets for years and burdening their employees.
“The sky’s the limit on where they could possibly go with this,” said Brian Marcotte, CEO of the National Business Group on Health, another nonprofit that represents large employers. “We’re always supportive of disruptive innovation, and health care certainly is in need of it.”
The venture was announced by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos; JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon; and Buffett, the investment wizard of Berkshire Hathaway. The three companies have an estimated 1 million employees in the U.S.
The three businesses said their new venture will be independent and “free from profit-making incentives and constraints.” It will have an initial focus on technology that provides “simplified, high-quality and transparent” care.
Those involved said the idea is still in the early planning stages. It was not clear whether the ultimate intention is to move beyond the three companies. But Dimon said: “Our goal is to create solutions that benefit our U.S. employees, their families and, potentially, all Americans.”
Employer-sponsored health insurance covers about 157 million people in the U.S., constituting the biggest piece of the nation’s patchwork health care market. Health care costs — branded by Buffett “a hungry tapeworm on the American economy” — routinely rise faster than inflation, and employers have reacted by asking their workers to pay more of the bill and to shop around for better deals, something many people find hard to do.