Different threats from major shifts in two industries are pushing Walmart Inc. and health insurer Humana Inc. toward the same solution.
Amazon.com Inc. has taken direct aim at the giant retailer by siphoning customers out of its stores. Humana’s rivals are striking deals to make them one-stop health superstores with insurance, drug coverage, pharmacies, clinics and doctors. A deal or joint venture between Humana and Walmart — already longtime partners — might help defend against those competitive threats.
The companies haven’t publicly commented on reports Thursday that they were weighing a closer relationship or a merger, and it’s not clear if they’ll go forward with one, or what form it might take. A person familiar with the discussions told Bloomberg the pair are mainly considering a closer partnership to provide care to consumers at or near their homes, helping them manage or prevent illness.
Walmart would be able to steer Humana’s millions of customers to the chain’s stores, create new medical and wellness services in its millions of square feet of retail space, and take a bigger slice of the U.S.’s $3.5 trillion in health spending. Humana would get access to thousands of brick-and-mortar locations to provide low-cost health services, fitting into the insurer’s strategy of providing more medical care directly to its members.
“Obviously a lot of things have to go right for this vision to come to fruition, but if they can pull it off it will be an absolute game-changer in health care,’’ Chas Roades, the co-founder of consulting firm Gist Healthcare, said by email.
Walmart runs 4,700 U.S. pharmacies and has been eyeing health care for years, though it hadn’t publicly settled on a strategy. The company agreed to offer Medicare plans with Humana in 2010, and struck a deal to provide healthy-food discounts to some Humana customers in 2012. It has discussed building out physician clinics for years, but now has just 19 and recently said it wasn’t planning to add more.
Humana has been opening medical clinics and operates nearly 200 locations with about 1,500 physicians. Its Humana at Home business cares for members where they live, avoiding costly hospital stays, and the company is bolstering that unit through a deal with private-equity partners to buy part of Kindred Healthcare Inc.
“You can see the strategy by which they could make investments that make people healthier for a patient that’s both a Humana enrollee and a Walmart customer,’’ said Craig Garthwaite, a professor of strategy at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. “These are the types of deals we should expect if you believe we’re remaking the business model in health care.”
Humana specializes in private Medicare plans for U.S. seniors, known as Medicare Advantage, though rivals like UnitedHealth Group Inc. and Aetna Inc. are threatening its position. The Medicare Advantage program offers insurers strong financial incentives to keep their customers healthier and manage costs by giving the plans a fixed sum of money to take care of each customer for a year, based in part on how sick the person is.
CVS Health Corp. already employs a similar strategy. It has more than 6 million people enrolled in Medicare drug plans, whom it can steer to its retail locations to pick up their pills. A pending takeover of Aetna for about $68 billion will enhance that position. The companies also plan to create health hubs to care for individuals in CVS stores.