The potential acquisition of Aetna Inc. by CVS Health Corp. would create an integrated health care behemoth and put huge pressure on standalone players such as Express Scripts Holding Co. and Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc.
CVS and Aetna have held discussions about a potential deal, according to people familiar with the matter who asked not to be identified as the details aren’t public. A tie-up would combine the third-biggest health insurer with the largest U.S. drugstore chain, which also runs a pharmacy-benefit management unit.
A newly created CVS-Aetna would “own the entire chain, from prescribing and filling prescriptions to the health plans that pay for them,” said Michael Rea, of Rx Savings Solutions, which has an app that helps patients find lower cost drugs.
Under a combined roof, the insurance arm of CVS-Aetna could help keep costs down by routing patients needing basic urgent care to CVS-owned walk-in clinics and keeping them out of expensive hospital emergency rooms, analyst Ann Hynes of Mizuho Securities said in a note to clients. The company would also become a formidable competitor to UnitedHealth Group Inc., the biggest health insurer and owner of its own PBM unit, OptumRx.
But even with the new clout, a merger isn’t likely to be derailed by federal antitrust authorities, said John Briggs, an antitrust attorney at Axinn Veltrop & Harkrider in Washington.
A deal could spell particular trouble for Express Scripts, which would become the last major standalone pharmacy-benefit manager not allied with a major insurer. Walgreens, the No. 2 drugstore operator, could also feel the pressure. A CVS-Aetna marriage could cause the drugstore chain to look for its own acquisition targets, with Express Scripts being the most likely, Charles Rhyee, an analyst at Cowen & Co., wrote in a note to clients Friday.
And then there’s Amazon.com Inc., which recently gained drug-wholesaler licenses in 14 states. The looming threat of the e-commerce behemoth entering the mail-order pharmacy business and pushing down profit margins for drug distributors, benefit managers and retail pharmacies intensifies the pressure on standalone players.
For CVS, the move is “a natural defense against the potential threat of Amazon entering the retail pharmacy market,” Rhyee said.
Another possibility is that Amazon could buy Express Scripts. That would give the internet retailer an instant and large foothold in both the PBM industry and the mail-order pharmacy business.
For years, drug benefits were largely carved out from the rest of a medical coverage plan. But increasingly the two services are being combined, a move that in theory will make it easier to verify whether expensive drugs are worth the cost.
“You are hearing the warning for the end of the road for the classic standalone” pharmacy-benefit business, said Pratap Khedkar, managing principal at consulting firm ZS Associates. Combining drug and medical benefits in the same place is “the only way” payers will figure out whether expensive new drugs are actually making people better and saving money by keeping them out of the hospital.