Why Berkshire Hathaway's health care project Haven failed

Haven, the joint venture of three of the largest companies in America — Berkshire Hathaway (BRK-A, BRK-B), Amazon (AMZN) and JPMorgan Chase (JPM) — once threatened to disrupt the health care system of the U.S. But less than three years later, it unceremoniously fizzled out in February.

Other than a press release from Haven at the time of its disbanding, only JPM CEO Jamie Dimon has publicly addressed the failed venture. But Warren Buffett watchers may wonder if the Berkshire CEO will discuss the breakup and the state of U.S. health care at the conglomerate's annual shareholder meeting on May 1, which will be streamed live exclusively on Yahoo Finance.

The joint venture was formed with the goal of improving the health care experience and lowering costs of care for their employees in January 2018. As large employers, the trio saw firsthand how quickly the costs of health care were rising, as employer-based health care remains one of the largest sources of health insurance coverage in the country.

So why did it fail? Largely, the venture failed to take off because the U.S. health care system is just too complex to be disrupted, experts have said. Haven also faced competition from entrenched players in the health care system, and despite their size and reach, the three companies had trouble obtaining necessary data that could help them better control costs, the Wall Street Journal reported in January, citing people familiar with the project's budget. Moreover, the venture had unclear goals.

FILE- This combination of file photos from left shows Warren Buffett, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, on Sept. 19, 2017, in New York, Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon.com, on Sept. 24, 2013, in Seattle and JP Morgan Chase Chairman and CEO Jamie Dimon on July 12, 2013, in New York. A health care venture created in 2018 by the three corporate giants to attack soaring care costs will shutter only a couple years after launching. A company spokeswoman said Monday, Jan. 4, 2021, that Haven will end operations in February. (AP Photos, File)
This combination of file photos from left shows Warren Buffett, Jeff Bezos, and Jamie Dimon. (AP Photos, File)

All told, the failure of Haven was “not so much because employers or insurers had never tried to control costs. It was always unclear what new value-add Haven brought to the table," according to Loren Adler, an expert with the Brookings Institute.

Dimon, in his annual letter to shareholders on April 7, noted that even though Haven disbanded, JPM will "continue to build on what we learned," stating that the problems that existed when Haven formed in 2018 still exist.

"Our costs are more than twice those of the developed world without justification by better outcomes," he said. "We will invest in healthcare innovation and other approaches to improve the health and well-being of our employees and address this critical national issue. More details will be shared as we progress," he added.

Stakes in different parts of the health care system

The trio also failed to get their venture off the ground because they had stakes in different parts of the health system and, according to several reports, were never able to align their goals.

Berkshire owns shares in several health care companies, including big pharmaceuticals like Merck (MRK), Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) and Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMY), as well as dialysis giant DaVita (DVA).

Amazon expanded its interest in the mail-order pharmacy business with its acquisition of PillPack, which it has now transformed into Amazon Pharmacy — with many anticipating an even greater expansion into pharmacy services soon. Its cloud service, AWS, is increasingly playing a role behind the scenes for all types of health entities, including hospitals. The e-commerce giant has also launched clinics for its employees, which could expand to the general population.

Meanwhile, JPM maintains a significant presence in the industry, ranging from its well-known annual health conference in San Francisco, to the various services for health companies and research into health policies and issues.

Dr. Atul Gawande, who led the joint venture until he left in the middle of last year, told Yahoo Finance recently that there are some areas where the private sector can take the lead, but — as the pandemic has shown — the U.S.'s weak public health sector needs attention to strengthen the industry overall.

Greater investment into public health is needed in order for the country to avoid being caught flat-footed again at the onset of what is likely to be another pandemic in the future, he said.

"We're not committed as a country, even now, to making sure everyone has coverage, everyone has a doctor, and they're part of a system that can reach you. That's part of the difficulty that's made this so specifically difficult in the United States," Gawande said.

2021 Berkshire Hathaway annual shareholders  meeting
2021 Berkshire Hathaway annual shareholders meeting

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