Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Team Up to Try to Disrupt Health Care

SEATTLE — Three corporate behemoths — Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase — announced on Tuesday that they would form an independent health care company for their employees in the United States.

The alliance was a sign of just how frustrated American businesses are with the state of the nation’s health care system and the rapidly spiraling cost of medical treatment. It also caused further turmoil in an industry reeling from attempts by new players to attack a notoriously inefficient, intractable web of doctors, hospitals, insurers and pharmaceutical companies.

It was unclear how extensively the three partners would overhaul their employees’ existing health coverage — whether they would simply help workers find a local doctor, steer employees to online medical advice or use their muscle to negotiate lower prices for drugs and procedures. While the alliance will apply only to their employees, these corporations are so closely watched that whatever successes they have could become models for other businesses.

Major employers, from Walmart to Caterpillar, have tried for years to tackle the high costs and complexity of health care, and have grown increasingly frustrated as Congress has deadlocked over the issue, leaving many of the thorniest issues to private industry. About 151 million Americans get their health insurance from an employer.

(Why will health care be so difficult for these companies to untangle? Analysis from The Upshot.)

But Tuesday’s announcement landed like a thunderclap — sending stocks for insurers and other major health companies tumbling. Shares of health care companies like UnitedHealth Group and Anthem plunged on Tuesday, dragging down the broader stock market.

That weakness reflects the strength of the new entrants. The partnership brings together Amazon, the online retail giant known for disrupting major industries; Berkshire Hathaway, the holding company led by the billionaire investor Warren E. Buffett; and JPMorgan Chase, the largest bank in the United States by assets.

They are moving into an industry where the lines between traditionally distinct areas, such as pharmacies, insurers and providers, are increasingly blurry. CVS Health’s deal last month to buy the health insurer Aetna for about $69 billion is just one example of the changes underway. Separately, Amazon’s potential entry into the pharmacy business continues to rattle major drug companies and distributors.

(Here’s a look at how even the threat of Amazon’s entry into an industry can rattle stocks.)

The companies said the initiative, which is in its early stages, would be “free from profit-making incentives and constraints,” but did not specify whether that meant they would create a nonprofit organization. The tax implications were also unclear because so few details were released.

Jamie Dimon, the chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, said in a statement that the effort could eventually be expanded to benefit all Americans.

“The health care system is complex, and we enter into this challenge open-eyed about the degree of difficulty,” Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder and chief executive, said in a statement. “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.”

The announcement touched off a wave of speculation about what the new company might do, especially given Amazon’s extensive reach into the daily lives of Americans — from where they buy their paper towels to what they watch on television. It follows speculation that the company, which recently purchased the grocery chain Whole Foods, might use its stores as locations for pharmacies or clinics.



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