Dear Jeff Bezos:
It looked like a great idea when you started to build a team of healthcare specialists back in the summer. Despite — or perhaps because of — endless attempts to control costs and improve quality, American healthcare remains (in the words of a recent THCB post) “a version of Afghanistan…replete with tribal conflicts, warlords, corruption, a bad communication system, [and] language problems.” Surely, there must be opportunities for Amazon.
Healthcare reporters were quick to pick up on rumors of your company entering the pharmacy business. If Amazon’s purchasing, distribution, delivery and marketing skills could be applied to the Whole Foods grocery business, imagine what might be achieved in the $500 billion pharmacy market. And imagine how this base could be used to transform the entire healthcare industry. No wonder drugstore chains and drug manufacturers saw their stocks swoon as the rumors spread.
Now it seems Amazon may have been aced out.
CVS Health, the largest retail pharmacy chain and a major pharmacy benefits manager, is in talks to buy Aetna, the third largest US health insurer, for more than $66 billion. While some analysts see this as primarily a defensive maneuver to thwart Amazon, it has the potential to dramatically change the healthcare playing field.
In the short run, both CVS and Aetna would be better protected against their current weaknesses. CVS’ PBM business is increasingly vulnerable as major insurers bring drug negotiations in-house, while its retail stores face growing competition from on-line pharmacies and – more recently – from federal approval of Walgreens’ acquisition of Rite-Aid. Aetna has its own weaknesses: it lost money on the Obamacare exchanges, and the continuing move of large groups to ASO contracts means less profitable underwritten business.
Health 2.0 caught up with some of our favorite investors who have a strong pulse on what’s happening in digital health care both past and present. We talked about company evaluation, unmet needs in health care, and their biggest surprises yet.
“Pretty much all of my investments are in first time CEOs, which is not particularly what the venture capital playbook tells you to go do. But I find those people to be very hungry and largely underappreciated by the rest of the world. They’re also very willing to bash their head against a brick wall with me for a while, in order to try to succeed at something that is hard to do.”
– Bryan Roberts, Venrock on what he looks for in an investment.
“There are so “many tech people who want to work their way into health care venture capital. When I started in health care venture in 1998 you couldn’t give it away. I wonder how long it will be before the cycle ends?”
– Lisa Suennen, GE Ventures on what surprises her about the industry right now.
Catch up with Lisa Suennen, Bryan Roberts, and others at Health 2.0’s WinterTech event
on January 10, 2018
in San Francisco where you’ll hear more on investment trends, IPO, and the rise in consumer choices. Register today
for WinterTech before the early price ends.
Many people have been surprised by the announcement that CVS is interested in purchasing Aetna. Why would a PBM want to own a health plan? There has been speculation that the move by Amazon to get into the pharmacy space may be a reason. But there is another more rationale reason and its based upon a flaw in the Affordable Care Act.
The flaw is known as the Medical Loss Ratio requirement and it reads like this from the CMS website
The Affordable Care Act requires insurance companies to spend at least 80% or 85% of premium dollars on medical care, with the rate review provisions imposing tighter limits on health insurance rate increases. If an issuer fails to meet the applicable MLR standard in any given year, as of 2012, the issuer is required to provide a rebate to its customers.
This requirement was put in place as a way to ensure that health plans did not make money by underutilizing medical care. But it had the unintended consequence of insuring that costs never went down and here’s why.
Dr. Simon Kos had big shoes to fill when he took over the role of Microsoft Chief Medical Officer from Dr. Bill Crounse last year. Dr. Kos said himself that they were some “big scrubs to fill”. However, at the time he had already been with Microsoft for six years and in Health IT for more than a decade before that, so he was no doubt up to the challenge.
As Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Kos is responsible for providing clinical guidance, worldwide thought leadership, vision and strategy for Microsoft technologies and solutions in the healthcare industries. He made the move to Health IT after working a few years as a Medical Officer in Sydney, Australia. It was then that Kos decided to go back to school to study software engineering, and later his MBA. He then worked with InterSystems and Cerner and helped them to implement e-Health initiatives in Australia. In 2010 he joined Microsoft as a Health Industry Manager “with the appreciation that improving health and healthcare was about more than just putting in EMRs.” Even back then Dr. Kos had the vision to know that the future of healthcare would be in the data analytics and the AI applications that Microsoft would eventually release.
In a recent conversation, with the team here at Health 2.0, Dr. Kos talked about Microsoft’s current framework of digital transformation and highlighted their four pillars; Patient Engagement, Clinician Empowerment, Advanced Analytics, and New Models of Care. As a once practicing doc, he knows that technology needs to help not hinder the healthcare workforce and that AI will be able to improve diagnosis speed and accuracy without replacing or interfering with the clinician. He is a fervent believer that it is important to be constantly evaluating the tech models that may not be viable today but will be in the future. He is excited about Microsoft’s work on patient chatbots and VR/Mixed reality physician education platforms and will be demoing that technology on the Health 2.0 Stage on Monday, October 2nd.
“There are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness is the true method” – Herman Melville, Moby Dick
Asymmetry of Error
During the Ebola epidemic calls to ban flights from Africa from some quarters were met by accusations of racism from other quarters. Experts claimed that Americans were at greater risk of dying from cancer than Ebola, and if they must fret they should fret more about cancer than Ebola. One expert, with a straight Gaussian face, went as far as saying that even hospitals were more dangerous than Ebola. Pop science reached an unprecedented fizz.
Trader and mathematician, Nassim Taleb scoffed at these claims. Comparing the risk of dying from cancer to Ebola was flawed, he said, because the numerator and denominator of cancer don’t change dramatically moment to moment. But if you make an error estimating the risk of Ebola, the error will be exponential, not arithmetic, because once Ebola gets going, the changing numerator and denominator of risk makes a mockery of the original calculations.
The fear of Ebola, claimed Taleb, far from being irrational, was reasonable and it was its comparison to death from cancer and vending machines which was irrational and simplistic. Skepticism of Ebola’s impact in the U.S. was grounded in naïve empiricism – one which pretends that the risk of tail events is computable.
By SAURABH JHA, MD
An old disagreement between Uwe Reinhardt and Sally Pipes in Forbes is a teachable moment. There’s a dearth of confrontational debates in health policy and education is worse off for it.
Crux of the issue is the more efficient system: employer-sponsored insurance (ESI) or Medicaid. Sally Pipes, president of the market-leaning Pacific Research Institute, believes it is ESI. Employers spend 60% less than the government, per person: $3,430 versus $9,130, per person (according to the American Health Policy Institute). Seems like a no brainer.
Pipes credits “consumerist and market-friendly approaches to health insurance” for the efficiencies. She blames “fraud,” “improper payment,” and “waste” for problems in government-run components of health care.
But Uwe Reinhardt, economist at Princeton, counters that Medicaid appears inefficient because of the risk composition of its enrollees. Put simply, Medicaid recipients are sicker. Sicker patients use more health care resources. Econ 101.
The points of tension in their disagreement are instructive.
Dr. Jha writes on these pages in typically stirring fashion about his views on the recent health care kerfuffle and rightly so fingers what the real focus of our efforts should be: Cost. He ends by slaying both sides because of their refusal to confront the hospital chargemonster – the fee schedule hospitals make that remarkably only really applies to the uninsured.
Unfortunately, the solution proposed ensures hospital fee schedules for the uninsured are no greater than Medicare reimbursements, which is far from perfect. Consider that the Medicare reimbursement for a stent placed to an ischemic limb is in the range of $15,000. While this makes for a less daunting bill for the uninsured, in reality for the vast majority of folks that are uninsured $15,000 is about as far away as $150,000.
But my major disagreement with the good Dr. Jha relates not to his attempt to slay the chargemaster, but his underappreciation for the attempts made in the GOP bill to control health care spending. A conservative mantra about the why of health care costs focuses on the existence of deep pocketed third party payers that make costs opaque to patients. Attempting to have patients understand what they’re being charged has been conservative dogma, and there are a number of studies that suggest patients with health saving accounts are more cost conscious when they interact with the health care system. Dr. Jha glosses over this important point – This is the Republican attempt to bend the cost curve! And at least to this physician who’s lived through the last eight years, a plan that has a considerably greater chance of success than any number of failed acronyms designed so far by enlightened theorists from the Acela corridor.
The policy experts are hard to convince about HSAs, and point to the above chart as evidence of the uselessness of HSAs.
Any backpacker travelling on a shoestring budget in Thailand knows not to blow their entire budget on premium whiskey in a premium hotel on the first night in Bangkok. Rather, you need to skip the occasional meal, stay in a cheap dorm with random strangers, and drink cheap beer on Khao San Road if you wish to see the country and return home without having to wash dishes in a restaurant in Bangkok to repay the loans. Both Democrats and Republicans seem impervious to a simple wisdom that I learnt when backpacking – you save money if you go for cheap stuff. The operative word here is “cheap.”
Both the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and the Better Care Reconciliation Act (BCRA) impose cost sharing, such as deductibles. Deductibles lower premiums by cost shifting. Because the sick, for obvious reasons, are more likely to meet their deductibles sooner than the healthy, deductibles shift costs from the healthy to the sick, or are a “tax on the sick.” Deductibles also reduce premiums by reducing the administrative loading of insurance – because insurers have fewer small claims to process, administrative costs reduce.
Although many participants in the healthcare supply chain like to shroud drug transactions in a cloak of complexity and regulation, drugs are just ‘packaged technology’ and could be transacted much like other technology-based products, albeit regulated ones. As those in the Rx supply chain know, drug transactions have been carefully engineered to be anything but simple.
There is a lot of scuttlebutt about retail powerhouse Amazon bringing its proven brand of simplicity to the drug markets. We at VIVIO Health applaud this effort and hope it becomes successful as the result will be significant progress toward a market-driven industry, a much-needed first for healthcare consumers. Unfortunately, Amazon, even with its storied history of disrupting archaic industries must overcome four key structural roadblocks.
It’s easy to see the Amazon experience starting with consumers who are buying generic prescriptions either without insurance, when the price is lower than their copay, or as purchases counting toward plan deductibles. Beyond this point, Amazon’s path gets significantly bumpier. After satisfying deductible requirements, many consumers only pay 10-20% of the purchase price as coinsurance cost while the plan pays the rest. Amazon knows many people’s post-deductible out-of-pocket costs, especially on higher cost generic and branded drugs, will be significantly lower when using their plan rather than the Amazon platform. This is the first structural challenge they need to overcome.
On Friday, Amazon purchased upscale grocery and health food chain Whole Foods for $13.4 billion. Business outlets have praised the deal for both sides by noting that Amazon gains the brick-and-mortar presence that it has long sought while Whole Foods gains a major bump in stagnant stock prices. Squeezed by Costco, Target and Walmart’s increasing forays into the organic produce, Whole Foods was forced on the defensive in recent years, making shareholders unhappy.
Now, with the sale to Amazon, Whole Foods gains a second life as part of the world’s largest internet e-commerce company. Already, speculation has begun regarding how Amazon can leverage its technology to streamline Whole Foods’ operations and how Amazon can leverage the massive network of 460 stores in the US, Canada and UK to extend its relatively recent profitable streak.
But what do these obvious business benefits mean for American consumers?
While it will take time to know for sure, it’s probable that Amazon will add Whole Foods products to its AmazonFresh service, available to Amazon Prime members for an additional $14.99 a month. Competition in the American online grocery delivery service space has been unexpectedly fierce in recent years with companies such as FreshDirect and Instacart holding their own against Amazon and likely slowing AmazonFresh’s expansion into additional cities.