Minnesota effort has health care revamp lessons for Amazon and its partners

Christopher Snowbeck, Star Tribune (Minneapolis) on

Published in Business News

The first is to partner with health insurers, rather than be seen as competition, said Steve Wetzell, a health care consultant in the Twin Cities who was executive director of Buyers Health Care Action Group. One reason the program lost momentum, Wetzell said, is that insurance carriers viewed it as a threat.

"The carriers are not the primary cause of the fundamental problems facing the U.S. heath care system, they're just not solving them," Wetzell said via e-mail. "Any employer coalition that ends up being viewed as a competitor and threat to the insurance industry's core business interests is probably not going to win that battle over the long term."

Another lesson is that driving fundamental change takes a long time, said Carolyn Pare, the chief executive of the Minnesota Health Action Group, the employer group that has continued since Choice Plus was sold off in the early 2000s. To this day, Pare's group tries to promote transparency, quality and value in the products and services that employers buy from health care vendors.

In the vague proposal from Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan, Pare said she sees the chance for something more.

"We've been talking about the same kinds of things, the same ideas in terms of transforming health care for as long as I've been involved in this, and yet we make very minor strides forward," Pare said. "So, perhaps -- perhaps -- when we have some very large employers, their CEOs who are purpose-driven in what they want to achieve ... I'm very hopeful that this could change the game."

The Minnesota coalition failed to transform health care, but has good company in that failure, Forsythe said. He pointed to a long history of employer initiatives that had to settle for small victories after trying to make big changes.

Even so, Forsythe said he's excited about the new coalition, particularly because Amazon is involved. For decades, the missing ingredient in the health care market, Forsythe argues, has been the lack of transparency about the actual price of medical services.


If employers and individual patients knew more about the actual cost of care at different health care providers, he said, they could direct business to the doctors and hospitals that provide the best combination of quality and cost.

"Imagine if Amazon could leverage what I think is one of their core competencies -- making pricing available and transparent -- in the health care space," Forsythe said. "It could change everything."

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