Walmart is said to be considering an acquisition of the health insurer Humana.
Humana has for years had a close relationship with Walmart, partnering on health plans and other initiatives. The conversations underway now also could lead to a closer relationship without a takeover, Reuters reports.
The combination could help Walmart's existing healthcare businesses — including its pharmacy and health clinics — as healthcare companies continue to merge, according to analysts at Morgan Stanley.
A deal could also help Walmart confront Amazon Prime memberships, which the analysts describe as "fortifying an impenetrable moat" around Amazon's customers.
News that Walmart may be interested in acquiring Humana makes a lot more sense than it first appears to.
Humana has held early-stage talks with Walmart focused primarily on new partnerships, according to multiple news reports. And while you might think of Walmart as a giant retail business, but it's also one of the largest pharmacy chains in the US, behind only Walgreens and CVS.
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Walmart has long had a focus on affordable prescriptions as well, offering some generic medications for $4. And Humana has historically had a close relationship with Walmart: for example, they have a co-branded Medicare drug plan and an initiative that provides healthy-food credits.
That pharmacy component — along with the small healthcare clinic Walmart also has — holds the key to why a deal with an insurer might make sense, analysts at Morgan Stanley said in a note on Monday.
One other thing to note: Such a deal might help Walmart take on Amazon Prime.
Protecting Walmart's business
The companies responsible for paying for healthcare expenses — like insurers — are feeling the effects of new procedures and innovative medications coming into the market with high price tags. To counter that, they've been consolidating, in part hoping that it will give them more leverage over providers of those expensive treatments. Recent examples include CVS Health and Aetna, which combines an insurer with a pharmacy business just like a Humana-Walmart deal might. The consolidation, in the end, could also put Walmart at a disadvantage if they don't get in the game, the analysts said.
"Like in retail, size and scale also matter in healthcare; thus, consolidation of other retailers and healthcare providers could put Walmart at a disadvantage."
By merging a health insurer into Walmart's business, it could give the joint company a few advantages, such as protecting the retail pharmacy business by potentially driving more people to it, and by having more access through home health to people at home, something Walmart's been working on through its in-home delivery system for groceries and other packages.
Taking on Amazon
Walmart has also been in steep competition with Amazon, leading the company to try everything from opening FedEx Office locations inside stores to acquiring companies like Jet. Linking up with Humana could be a strategic move on that front to get a more devoted customer base to rival Amazon's Prime memberships. Walmart doesn't have its own membership model.
"As the battle over consumer spending between Amazon and Walmart intensifies, we are concerned Amazon's Prime membership program is fortifying an impenetrable moat around its customers," the Morgan Stanley analysts wrote. "'Ownership of lives' via healthcare verticalization could be another way to crack into more customers/'members.'"
Credit Suisse analysts separately highlighted the potential for "stickier" customer relationships through the deal.
"The combination could create stickier customer relationships, leverage locations to better coordinate care delivery (potentially by deploying enhanced pharmacy, small clinic or primary care activities), while also reducing costs, and positioning WMT more offensively for changes in both the healthcare and retail sector," it said in a note.
For its part, Amazon's ambitions in healthcare are starting to become clearer. The tech giant is teaming up with JPMorgan and Berkshire Hathaway on a nonprofit healthcare initiative, and it already sells over-the-counter medication, including its own exclusive line called "Basic Care."
While it remains to be seen whether Amazon decides to get into the prescription drug business, the company could stand to put a lot of pressure on pharmacy businesses including Walmart's.
"The big are getting bigger and with AMZN looming over the healthcare space, it could be in WMT's best interest to act to protect its base," the note said.