Now that we’ve had time to ponder the initially wonderful-sounding idea of Amazon and two powerful friends fixing health care, it’s become clear that … yeah, it still sounds great.
Not “great” as in they’ll definitely succeed in some sweeping way. They may not at all.
Just “great” as in, for most of us, there’s far more potential upside than downside.
Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Berkshire Hathaway’s Warren Buffett and JPMorgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon are putting their substantial reputations and their companies’ money on the line to come up with something better than the inefficient, confusing, expensive mess that currently exists in medical care.
If they succeed, the three companies could limit big expenses and have a better shot at recruiting and retaining good employees. Here’s what’s better than that: It also should have ripple effects beyond them and their combined million-plus employees.
Dimon said in a press release that the goal is to create solutions that could benefit their own folks “and, potentially, all Americans.”
We don’t know yet exactly how they plan to do that.
We don’t even know for sure if it will be an insurance company, a health care provider, a third-party manager or something else. We do know that three of the nation’s biggest capitalists say they’ll rely on an independent company “free from profit-making incentives and constraints.” Really?
Ripe for hype
It’s easy to get too dreamy about the possibilities.
Which kind of reminds me of the run-up before a mysterious product was unveiled in 2001. There were hints it could revolutionize transportation and urban development.
Apple’s Steve Jobs predicted it could be as big as the PC. John Doerr, a venture capitalist who invested early in Amazon and other winners, said it could be bigger than the internet.
It turned out they were talking about the Segway, the stand-up scooter now used by mall and theme-park security officers and uncomfortable-looking families in tour groups.
At first blush, the Amazon trio isn’t making wild promises about health care.
“Our group does not come to this problem with answers,” said Buffett, who referred to ballooning medical costs as a tapeworm on the economy. “But we also do not accept it as inevitable.”
Yet, the group said it will initially focus on tech solutions to provide “simplified, high-quality and transparent health care at a reasonable cost.”
Just those basics sound brash. How messed up is that?
A local doctor’s view
William Silver, a Dunwoody plastic surgeon and past president of the Medical Association of Georgia, said his initial worry was that if Amazon, Berkshire and JPMorgan try to launch their own insurance business, they might scare off rivals and reduce the slim pool of insurers who still serve some areas.
But if the trio made health care more efficient and less expensive, “I would love to see them come in,” Silver said. “Doctors will be able to see more patients and get to them much quicker.”
The insurance and health care complex is massive and dysfunctionally intertwined. Making changes for wide swaths of the nation is tough. Others have tried and faltered.
I talked about that with Bill Custer, a Georgia State University economist who specializes in health insurance and health care financing.
“Part of me says, ‘Well, I’ve heard this before,’ ” Custer told me.
Care from a distance
A more efficient system could mean that some in the health care and insurance industries will make less money, he said. So expect resistance. It would be difficult to change the overall insurance system. And creating a new comprehensive system of doctors and hospitals would be challenging for employers with workers scattered across the nation, he said.
A more likely approach, he said, is to significantly expand telemedicine and take similar steps that would make visits to health care offices less necessary. That alone, Custer said, could save the three companies billions of dollars.
Just having Amazon, Berkshire and JPMorgan looking for better ways “can’t be anything but good” for consumers, he told me.
I know some people worry about a powerful company such as Amazon burrowing its tentacles into the life-and-death world of health care. Me? If a company such as Amazon is going to ruthlessly push to delight consumers, I’d rather have them do it with health than with headphones and Harry Potter books.
More transparency? More efficient delivery of service? Comparison shopping not only on price but with better ways to evaluate health practitioners? Sign me up … if that’s on the way.
OTHER AMAZON COVERAGE: Read more about officials’ attempts to lure Amazon to Georgia at myAJC.com/amazon/