Why We Should Root for the Amazon/Berkshire Hathaway/JPMorgan Chase Healthcare Startup

NOTE: This story was originally published on January 31, 2018.

Greetings from Washington, D.C. where the State of the Union is one of rampant unease if not chronic and acute disease.

This morning, news broke that the Director of the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta — the governmental body that is charged with tracking, among other things, this year’s out-of-control influenza epidemic — is out of a job. Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald tendered her resignation from the CDC hours after a news report confirmed that, just one month into her directorship, she bought sizable holdings in tobacco company stock.

Don’t cry for me, Philip Morris!

In another president’s administration — hell, in any parallel universe — a bombshell story like this would buckle confidence in the public health system and consume a presidency. But in our current state, we have become immune to such outrage.

Our immune-response to daily outrage and so many acid-dipped tweets is far higher than the 35 to 40 percent efficacy registered by this season’s flu shot. Sad.

Like millions of Americans, I got a flu shot. In fact, I got mine early in mid-September. Nonetheless, in January I grew terribly sick with something flu-like that no doctor who has treated me could adequately diagnose. Three weeks in and I am still reeling. Meantime, the average wait times at nearby walk-in-clinics such as Patient First are an astounding three to four hours.

How is it that Americans and American companies pay record amounts for healthcare and yet we are anything but healthy?

Healthcare used to be affordable, so affordable that 40 years ago, many American companies treated their employees to a comprehensive coverage plan. My first job out-of-college came with “Cadillac” healthcare coverage that was free of employee premium contribution and co-pay requirements.

Over time, company healthcare policies covered more services and procedures which made workers, their families, and especially, service providers happy. But, year to year plan costs for the added coverage and other things have increased sometimes by double-digit amounts.

Fee-for-service healthcare was a great offering until it wasn’t. Public school teachers in Prince William County, Virginia — the Commonwealth’s second-largest district — have during the past ten years barely won annual cost-of-living increases, seeing any hard-earned salary gains swallowed up by larger annual healthcare plan premium contributions.

And the result? Those Prince William residents who had no access to company coverage got an Obamacare plan or opted out and paid a penalty. Others lucky enough to receive healthcare coverage from work often stay in their jobs too long, burning out and perhaps doing work that they dread, just to cover their or another family member’s serious medical care needs.

In other words, this: they stay in a job for access to healthcare to keep them and their loved ones from getting sick or sicker. But, staying on the job for healthcare often MAKES THEM SICK.

So yesterday’s seismic news, that Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffett, and Jamie Dimon have joined forces to completely disrupt healthcare, to find a way to make it work by containing costs and creating better health outcomes, offers hope.

It could be a game-changer.

The heads of Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, and JPMorgan Chase respectively announced Tuesday that they would form an independent health care company to service their combined United States-based workforce. The mission of the new company is clear: to leverage advanced technology to radically contain the cost of healthcare. The strategies to support that mission have yet to be determined, but Amazon’s Bezos said this: “Hard as it might be, reducing health care’s burden on the economy while improving outcomes for employees and their families would be worth the effort.”

According to public filings, Amazon claims about a half-million employees. Combine that workforce with Berkshire Hathaway’s and JPMorgan Chase’s and one can estimate that the new healthcare concern will cover over 1 million employees plus their dependents.

But why stop there?

We have a burgeoning class of professional talent in the U.S. called contract or gig workers. Some sources estimate that the gig component of the active American workforce will, by 2020, exceed 40 percent of the total — that’s 64 million workers. Some talent work gigs because they must cover immediate and often uneven cash-flow requirements. But other workers gig because gig work provides them the freedom and autonomy to do work that has great and profound meaning.

If Three Amigos Healthcare Company succeeds at its mission, if it drives considerable healthcare cost reductions and extends better health outcomes to all of its 1 million plus subscribers, then why not draw in our Gig Workforce as its beneficiaries as well?

Without much hesitation, millions of giggers already cough up $200 annually for Amazon Prime to deliver goods to their doors poste haste. Perhaps it would be of huge benefit to them to also have access to a streamlined policy offering world-class healthcare — cost contained by the vast premium pool of so many millions of workers?

The new Tax Law that has reduced corporate America’s tax burden also knee-capped Obamacare. And because of that, long term, we may never know if Obamacare would have worked if it were properly funded, subscribed, and supported.

It’s not dead. But Congress and the president did all that it could to send it to an early grave.

Could this novel alternative dreamed up by Bezos, Buffett, and Dimon work? For sure. Will it work? Time will tell. But this I know: we must ride this wave of disruption to one day deliver world-class healthcare to all American workers and their families, not just those who work for these three large corporations.

We are so sick. And, we shouldn’t be. That’s why we should root for this collaboration to be an unqualified success.

Our best days lie ahead.

BTW, Amazon now offers the 18-count-pack of Cold-Eeze® for just $9.83. Get free shipping with AmazonPrime, today…ah chooo!

DAN SMOLEN is executive producer and host of the podcast, The Tightrope with Dan Smolen.

Photo credit: Technology-enabled physician with patient, Getty Images.

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