It would be hard to think of a better team than the world’s richest man, one of its top bankers and the most esteemed investor of our time to solve such an elaborate problem as American health care. And yet, not even Jeff Bezos, Jamie Dimon and Warren Buffett could find the answer together.
Haven, the joint venture formed by Bezos’s Amazon.com Inc., Dimon’s JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc., is calling it quits after just three years. It was formed as a platform to discover ways to reduce the mounting costs and frustrating complexities of the health care system, with an initial focus on the companies’ own combined 1-million-or-so workforce. The dissolution of the Haven accord is emblematic of the profound challenge that haunts business leaders and politicians alike, and it comes as health care at large and the deficiencies of the U.S. system have moved front and center during an unprecedented global pandemic.
What began at pre-mask industry run-ins as casual conversations between the three powerful men, during which they’d lament the increasing burden of medical expenses on corporate profits, evolved into a formal partnership in January 2018. With such high-profile names and deep pockets behind it, Haven’s arrival drew much interest and fanfare — and among health care giants, dread — even if its mission was admittedly vague and conveyed a sense of overweening ambition for three nonhealth care companies. With little known or ever publicly disclosed about the venture’s progress since it began, its undoing may not be such a surprise. In May 2019, a candid Buffett said in a television interview that Haven had “no guarantee of success” and that he expected its mission to be “ungodly difficult;” one year later, Haven CEO Atul Gawande stepped aside to focus on the COVID-19 crisis in the more symbolic role of chairman.
Leadership may have a lot to do with why Haven never really got off the ground. To figure out new solutions for an industry as vast and complicated as health care, it ideally requires an intimate knowledge of insurance companies, managerial bureaucracy and a full-time focus. Gawande, the venture’s biggest hire — a renowned surgeon, Harvard professor and writer — didn’t quite check those boxes, as impressive as his resume is.
When Gawande was named CEO of Haven in June 2018, Bloomberg Opinion columnist Max Nisen noted that the doctor, while no doubt accomplished, lacked any experience or background in managing large organizations. Further, when Gawande took the role, he said he wouldn’t step down from his professorship, medical and other responsibilities, pointing to the limited nature of his commitment. Before he resigned, the Wall Street Journal reported that Gawande wanted to do less day-to-day management.
Meanwhile, the companies behind Haven began taking on their own internal projects, leaving less utility for the joint venture, CNBC reported Monday, citing unidentified sources familiar with the matter. Amazon recently announced Amazon Pharmacy, a flex of the e-commerce company’s logistical heft and expansion of the Prime ecosystem. Less and less do the descriptors “tech” and “e-commerce” accurately describe Amazon; at the least they minimize the disruption it’s caused to numerous industries — retail, supermarkets, shipping and now drugs. Haven, however, never lived up to its hype.
That leaves the question: If some of the best entrepreneurial and investing minds couldn’t fix health care, who will? A crisis calls.
Tara Lachapelle is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the business of entertainment and telecommunications, as well as broader deals.Tae Kim is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology.
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