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Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway And JPMorgan Tackle Health Care Costs

Jan 30, 2018
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Three immensely wealthy companies, each with an immensely famous CEO, say they're joining together to attack health care costs. Amazon made this announcement with Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan. Together, those companies will form a venture intended to improve health care for their U.S. employees by doing - what? Well, that's the part we're going to try to puzzle out with the curator of NPR's shot - Scott - Shots blog, Scott Hensley, who's here.

Hi there, Scott.

SCOTT HENSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK, so what is it these companies aspire to accomplish?

HENSLEY: They have said as their goals, they want to simplify health care for their employees, make it more transparent. They want to get more value. They want to reduce costs.

INSKEEP: And these are guys with big names - Warren Buffett, Jeff Bezos, Jamie Dimon - big-time executives.

HENSLEY: Three of the most charismatic, well-known executives in the country - and I think what they've said together - they also lead companies that have a lot of consumer experience, a lot of consumer expertise - Berkshire Hathaway with Geico, for instance. Amazon, everybody knows - and then JPMorgan, one of the biggest consumer-focused banks in the world. So I think what they are going to do is bring to bear that kind of expertise through technology to help their employees shop more smartly for health care. That would be the easiest thing for them to do. Think of how you purchase things on Amazon.

INSKEEP: OK. That sounds like laudable goals by people with lots of experience. But how exactly are they going to make it easier to shop for health care and bring down costs?

HENSLEY: We don't know. I emailed Amazon this morning, and in less time than it took to get an Amazon package, I got a response that said, we will let the press release speak for itself. And the press release really doesn't say much more than I said for you.

INSKEEP: Doesn't even the press release say, we don't know what we're going to do? We just know we're...

HENSLEY: Pretty much.

INSKEEP: ...Dissatisfied with the current status of things.

HENSLEY: They say there is room for companies with the shared goal and the best talent to try and crack this problem. And so I think - and they emphasize technology, so they do say that. So I could imagine, for instance, a portal or something for their employees that would help them price health care before they actually do something, maybe book appointments - stuff like that. I mean, that's actually possible for them to do. Now, will that really move the needle on health care costs? I'm not sure. I think it might make for a better experience for the employees.

INSKEEP: I'm glad you mentioned their employees. This is not them setting up a health care company for everybody. It's for their own employees. But it's many, many thousands of employees they can now experiment with.

HENSLEY: Right, hundreds of thousands of employees. And I think if they got traction with it, why wouldn't they then figure out a way to share that with other people, whether it's proprietary technology or not? They're talking about doing this in a nonprofit version, which, you know, makes me think, well, maybe there's a way that then they would spread it. But honestly, we're speculating here. I'm speculating here based on the thinness of the press release.

INSKEEP: Is there any precedent for a non-health care company to wade into the health care business and just do something effective or memorable?

HENSLEY: Sure. It's happened repeatedly. And I think one of the, you know, most prominent examples is what is now Kaiser Permanente, a big provider of health care in this country, you know, started with the Kaiser shipyards and providing first workers' comp kind of care and then later more integrated health care for employees. So it is possible. And I think there is reason to think they might be able to do something.

INSKEEP: And Kaiser ended up being a service that was available to just about anybody.

HENSLEY: Yeah.

INSKEEP: Scott, thanks very much.

HENSLEY: You bet.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Scott Hensley. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.