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Yahoo Finance Answers: Will Amazon make my health care cheaper?

Rick Newman
Senior Columnist

A whole new group of companies just got “Amazoned.”

Stocks fell in the health insurance, hospital, drugstore and pharmaceutical industries following news that Amazon (AMZN) is joining forces with Berkshire Hathaway (BRK-A) and J.P. Morgan Chase (JPM) to form an independent nonprofit business meant to improve the quality and cost of health care. Grocers got Amazoned last year when the e-commerce giant said it was buying Whole Foods, sending stocks of Kroger, Sprouts and even Walmart reeling.

The Amazon effect occurs because the online juggernaut brutalizes competitors that have fat profit margins or inefficiencies that raise prices for consumers. So a lot of Americans are naturally wondering if Amazon et. al. can step in and fix a byzantine health care system that imposes exorbitant costs and myriad other problems on consumers.

As part of a new feature called Yahoo Finance Answers, we invited audience members to submit their questions about this intriguing new venture. We don’t have all the answers, but here’s a start:

What will the new health provider do, exactly? None of the companies involved has said yet, but the new company—which doesn’t have a name yet, but some are calling “ABJ Health”—will most likely focus on lowering costs and improving outcomes for the employees of the three companies. Combined, they have about 1.2 million U.S. workers and a combined market value of more than $1.6 trillion. “We view this initiative as an open-ended effort at finding a better solution for paying for healthcare long-term, with technology representing the initial focus,” Goldman Sachs analyst Stephen Tanal wrote of the new initiative.

What will it do differently? Again—unknown at this point, but one focus might be using the kind of technology and data Amazon excels at to improve the delivery of care, consumer feedback, and the actual health of people enrolled. Think, for example, of how transparent prices are on Amazon—and how hidden they are in the health care system, where nobody knows the real cost of a prescription, an MRI or any given medical procedure. Warren Buffett’s Berkshire owns several insurance companies, so it has a large cadre of experts on how to improve efficiency there. And J.P. Morgan’s expertise in finance could help identify ways to streamline payments and everything involving the transfer of money. Imagine, for instance, an app that can show priced listings for various types of medical services, the way Amazon displays books or appliances, with clean financial statements like your bank offers online.

Can I get in on it? Afraid not, since it’s only meant for employees of these three companies. But Amazon has hinted it has large ambitions in the health care business, so it might use the new venture to test what kinds of health products or services it might offer to the public eventually. “This development strikes us as … Amazon’s typical playbook when entering a new category: acquiring as much data as possible before moving forward with the optimal path to disruption,” Morningstar analyst R.J. Hottovy wrote after the companies announced the deal. There’s big money in this, since health care accounts for 18% of the U.S. economy, or roughly $3.5 trillion. So parts of this venture might eventually spread beyond the three companies.

When’s it coming? Could be awhile. While the three companies are staffing the new operation now, it generally takes a long time to roll out new policies governing something as complex as health care. Assuming the venture continues to operate, it could easily be 5 or 10 years before there are meaningful results to report.

Should I be worried if I own health care stocks? Probably not as worried as the recent selloff suggests. Yahoo Finance’s Jared Blikre is tracking 18 big health-care names, including UnitedHealth (UNH), CVS (CVS), Pfizer (PFE) and Merck (MRK). Shares of all fell following the ABJ announcement, and three trading days later their combined market value had dropped by $63 billion, or 5.7%.

But it could be years before there’s any real effect in the marketplace from the ABJ initiative. “It’s naïve to think even a partnership among these highly respected companies has the ability to significantly impact the healthcare cost continuum over the short-term,” Deutsche Bank analysts wrote in a note to clients. DB points out that there are already effective cost-containment measures in place at many big companies, with some cost-control experiments starting to bear fruit. And they point out that radical changes likely to do the most to control costs can also alienate consumers, which employers are reluctant to do.

Is anything else coming that will rein in exorbitant costs? Not much, alas. For some companies and their workers, annual hikes in premiums and other costs have moderated. Those suffering the most from price hikes are people who aren’t covered by an employer, earn too much to qualify for government subsidies and buy insurance on their own, without any of the leverage that large group purchasers have. Republicans tried and failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act last year, but even if they had succeeded, it wouldn’t have helped people buying individual policies. And there’s nothing on the Congressional docket this year that’s likely to help. Sky-high health care costs are one of the most intractable problems in the U.S. economy, with no solutions imminent.

Could the Amazon consortium fail? Yep. In 2016, 40 big companies formed an alliance meant to bring down health care costs, and so far there haven’t been any notable breakthroughs. The Amazon partnership may end up no different.

If Warren Buffett cares so much about improving health care, why does he promote Coca-Cola and cheeseburgers? Buffett’s company owns a stake in Coke (KO), which might explain why he promotes that. And at 87, he appears to be in good health, for his age. It’s probably best to keep in mind that Buffett is focused on lowering costs and improving profitability for his company, rather than changing America’s eating habits.

Confidential tip line: rickjnewman@yahoo.com. Encrypted communication available.

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Rick Newman is the author of four books, including Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman

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