The recent news that U.S. retail giant CVS Health will purchase insurance giant Aetna, in part to gain millions of new customers for its prescription drug and primary care businesses, is another ominous sign for patients. Patients should worry about all the continued consolidation in the health care industry, whether it is Walgreens buying Rite-Aid to increase their pharmacy clout; Anthem’s ill-fated attempt to purchase Cigna to become an insurance monopoly; or hospital systems like Partners Healthcare in Boston trying to buy the hospitals and physician networks in and around its service area to control patient flow and increase market share. Consolidation often limits competition, and when that happens in market-based systems especially the result, says good research, is often that the cost of health care goes up. This does not benefit patients, who increasingly are paying more out of pocket for their insurance and for the services they receive from doctors, hospitals, labs, and drug companies.
The Affordable Care Act did little to encourage greater competition in the health care marketplace. That was probably by design, since those creating the legislation held an implicit assumption that the bigger players in each of the different industry areas like insurance, pharmacy, and hospital care could deliver given the size of the insurance expansion the ACA would promote. As we see from the existing premium inflation on the exchanges across the country and with prescription drugs, and the continued long delays in people’s ability to access care, this assumption was not accurate. To the contrary, the ACA’s focus on new and unproven structures like accountable care organizations; new payment models that reward scale and resource investment in things like information technology; and rewarding those organizations that have the most comprehensive performance measurement infrastructures has encouraged the kind of profit-oriented consolidation in the industry that does less to improve the overall system. Also, given the increased squeeze by payers like Medicare on payments to hospitals, for example, mergers and acquisitions are a natural yet dysfunctional corporate response to higher levels of uncertainty in the external health care environment.