Partners and Harvard Pilgrim aren’t really going to merge, are they?

Friday’s news was full of stories about merger discussions between Partners HealthCare and Harvard Pilgrim Health Care. No one denied the reports, so we can assume there’s some truth to the rumors. But why would these organizations contemplate a merger and how likely is it to happen?

From Partners’ perspective:

  • After growing for decades by taking over other providers, Partners has run out of options for major acquisitions. The state blocked Partners’ attempt to buy South Shore Hospital, for example. Meanwhile, Partners’ biggest rival, Beth Israel is becoming more formidable as it combines with Lahey. In some ways a Partners/Harvard Pilgrim merger would be analogous to the proposed Aetna/CVS combination, which was pursued only after Aetna’s planned purchase of Humana was rejected on antitrust grounds.
  • After buying Neighborhood Health, Partners is comfortable with the idea of owning an insurer. But they want one that’s bigger and focused on the commercial market rather than Medicaid.
  • The shift to value based care means providers need more of the capabilities typically found within health plans. This becomes a buy v. build decision.

From Harvard Pilgrim’s perspective:

  • Even though it’s not the number one player in the market, it too may be too big to get away with acquiring a significant competitor, e.g., Tufts Health Plan.
  • The Partners account itself actually has about 100,000 members. Shifting that business away from Blue Cross could be significant even on its own. (Although it kind of reminds me of the Cheech and Chong sketch where Chong proclaims himself a “good customer” –of himself).
  • Possibly, Harvard Pilgrim could gain an exclusive relationship with Partners, where the only way to get care at Partners is by purchasing a Harvard Pilgrim plan. That doesn’t seem likely, but who knows?

Overall

It’s not unusual for health plans and providers to consider tying up. Remember, Harvard Pilgrim’s predecessor, Harvard Community Health Care was a staff model HMO with its own physicians and care facilities. More recently, you see combined payers and providers (“payviders”) emerging in the Medicare Advantage space. There is a certain appeal to combining health insurance and delivery in one entity–Kaiser is Exhibit A– but ultimately it’s not such a superior model.

I don’t think a merger of Harvard Pilgrim and Partners has a compelling rationale and I don’t see it happening. More likely is some kind of limited alliance or joint venture.

By healthcare business consultant David E. Williams, president of Health Business Group.

 

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