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.
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.
Well, it’s official: CVS has stopped selling cigarettes and other tobacco products.
The sales ban will cost the multi-billion dollar pharmacy chain about $2 billion a year in profits. But the hope is that the move will provide a more consistent health promotion message to consumers (it has changed its corporate name to CVS Health) and lead to new business (for example, through visits to its in-store health clinics).
But will this move have any effect on smoking in the population? It’s difficult to say at this point.
The impact of the ban on overall tobacco sales nationwide will probably be negligible. Only a very small percentage of consumers buy their tobacco at pharmacies and there are plenty of retail options available beyond the local pharmacy.
CVS is also banning the sale of electronic or e-cigarettes. Advocates from this industry are predictably agitated: “It’s smoking that causes all the health problems, not the smokeless alternatives.” Others argue that e-cigarettes and other smokeless alternatives are effective aids for those wishing to quit-smoking.
Last Tuesday at midnight, CVS officially changed its name to CVS Health and simultaneously cleared its 7,700 retail stores of tobacco products a month earlier than previously reported. Its stores will be called CVS Pharmacy with plans to expand its 900 primary care clinics to 1,500 by 2017, and its $90 billion pharmacy benefits management unit, CVS Caremark, continuing to play a key role in serving its 65 million customers(1).
And the following day, the CMS Office of the Actuary released its forecast of health spending, predicting that health spending will likely return to 6% annual increases for the next decade(2).
No doubt, the timing of the two is coincidental. But taken together, they paint a future state in healthcare that’s distinctly different from its recent past.