Every Amazon (AMZN) flirtation toward the health care industry has sent hearts racing on Wall Street. Yet Amazon appears to be having commitment issues, and others have leapt while Jeff Bezos hesitated. Now comes a possible Walmart (WMT)-Humana (HUM) merger. A Walmart acquisition of the insurer could fundamentally reshape health care delivery in ways that Amazon may have trouble matching.
A Walmart-Humana deal could potentially transform the health care market for seniors, a demographic that is critical for both companies.
Walmart already operates about 4,500 in-store pharmacies and 2,900 vision centers, but a Humana deal would likely accelerate its efforts in developing in-store clinics. The clinics haven’t been a knockout success, but Walmart has been learning, wrote Tracy Watts, U.S. health reform leader at Mercer, in a blog post. “This partnership could foster new ways to bring people what they want and need,” she wrote, highlighting health care access in rural areas.
CVS Health (CVS), which is in the process of acquiring Aetna (AET), is planning to revamp its drugstores to provide more health services. Walmart has greater financial wherewithal to execute the strategy and its supercenters may be a more natural fit for health services.
Strategic Merits For Walmart-Humana
A Walmart-Humana tie-up has strategic merits for the retail giant, wrote Stifel analyst Mark Astrachan. He expects it would drive greater store traffic and produce health care cost savings, helping the discounter to keep investing to fend off Amazon.
Savings would come from closer ties to Humana, the largest remaining independent pharmacy benefits manager. That would help to reduce drug prices for Walmart’s 1.5 million U.S. employees, Astrachan wrote.
Humana recently purchased a major stake in the home health care business of Kindred Healthcare, a natural fit for Walmart’s home delivery business.
Still, there would be challenges. Piper Jaffray analyst Sarah James sees hurdles to staffing up clinics amid a nursing shortage that’s pushing up wages. She also questioned how attractive a merger would be for Humana. Humana has an enviable Medicare position while Walmart has a smaller store base compared to CVS Health and Walgreens Boots Alliance (WBA).
Still, Humana shares rose 4.4% on the stock market today, even as the Dow Jones, S&P 500 index and Nasdaq composite all lost about 2% or more. Meanwhile, shares of Walmart lost 3.8% and Amazon skidded 5.2%.
Amazon Threat Spurs Action
So far Amazon’s disruptive impact on health care has been all about what others are doing. Since reports last summer that Amazon might enter the retail prescription industry, the shockwaves have set in motion one deal after another. First it was CVS buying Aetna and beginning to offer same-day delivery in major markets, and next-day nationwide. Albertsons grabbed the Rite Aid (RAD) stores not bought by Walgreens. Last month, Cigna (CI) announced the purchase of Express Scripts (ESRX), the largest of the pharmacy benefit managers.
Options to enter the prescription drug business have narrowed for Amazon but haven’t been closed off entirely. One potential avenue would be acquiring Walgreens.
In January, Amazon announced a health care venture with JPMorgan Chase (JPM) and Berkshire Hathaway (BRKB). Health care stocks tumbled amid fear that Amazon would use the same formula that slayed book sellers and department stores. The scariest part: The companies say they have no intent to earn a profit from the effort. Yet they also confessed to a lack of any coherent plan for putting still-to-be-formed cost-saving ideas to work.