Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, JPMorgan Join Forces to Pare Health-Care Costs

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Amazon.com
Inc.,


AMZN 1.42%

Berkshire Hathaway


BRK.A -0.15%

and

JPMorgan


JPM -0.94%

Chase & Co. are forming a company to figure out how to reduce health-care costs for their hundreds of thousands of U.S. employees, the three companies said Tuesday.

“The ballooning costs of health care act as a hungry tapeworm on the American economy,” Berkshire Chief Executive Warren Buffett said in prepared remarks. “Our group does not come to this problem with answers. But we also do not accept it as inevitable.”

The new company will focus on technological solutions that can provide simplified and transparent health care for the three companies’ U.S. employees at a lower cost.

The three companies together have more than a million employees, though not all of them work in the U.S. The companies didn’t say how much money was earmarked for the initiative or whether it would grow to include other employers. They also said the new entity will be “free from profit-making incentives and constraints.”

Amazon has already triggered concerns for the broader health-care industry due to its as-yet unclear ambitions in the space, factoring into

CVS Health
Corp.’s

$69 billion bid last year for insurance giant

Aetna
Inc.

Specifically, Amazon has been eyeing an entry into the pharmacy-services industry and has added health-care supply options to its business-to-business marketplace offering.

Shares of companies across the health-care industry, including pharmacy-benefit managers, health-insurance companies and drugmakers, dropped sharply following the announcement. CVS shares sank 4.2% in midday trading, while Aetna shares slid 2.6%.

JPMorgan fell 0.7%, better than the S&P 500’s decline of more than 1%.

Todd Combs,

an investment officer at Berkshire Hathaway, Marvelle Sullivan Berchtold, a managing director of JPMorgan and

Beth Galetti,

a senior vice president at Amazon, are overseeing the company’s formation. Mr. Combs joined JPMorgan’s board of directors in 2016.

A longer-term management team, headquarters location and operational details of the new company will be announced later, the companies said.

Amazon had more than 540,000 employees globally as of October as it acquired grocery chain Whole Foods. The company offers full-time warehouse employees health-care benefits.

The company has said it is adding 100,000 full-time jobs in the U.S. through mid-2018, most in warehouses, and it is adding 50,000 corporate jobs over 10 to 15 years at its planned second North American headquarters.

Berkshire, which had 367,671 employees at the end of 2016, allows its 60-odd operating businesses to run independently, and it is rare for the company to mandate anything for all employees at its subsidiaries. Only about 25 people work in the company’s Omaha, Neb., headquarters.

Mr. Buffett, a longtime Democrat, has criticized U.S. health-care costs in the past and said he supports a single-payer system. At Berkshire’s annual meeting last year, he noted that medical costs had increased as a percentage of U.S. GDP in recent decades, while taxes as a percent of GDP had fallen.

The rising cost of health care “is a problem the society is having trouble with and is going to have more trouble with, regardless of which party is in power,” he said at the May annual meeting. “If you talk about world competitiveness of American industry, it’s the biggest single variable, where we keep getting more and more out of whack with the rest of the world.”

JPMorgan has nearly 250,000 employees, and it has more recently been involved in health care. Last week, The Wall Street Journal reported that the bank will reduce medical-plan deductibles by $750 a year for employees making less than $60,000. That’s part of $20 billion in investments the bank is making following a windfall from tax-law changes, softer regulatory environment and business growth.

The idea, which came from JPMorgan Chairman and CEO

James Dimon,

is to “directly reduce the burden” of health-care costs: The bank found in its own research that employees are spending a lot of money on health care and the most direct way to help lower-paid employees, especially during health crises, would be to lower the deductible, Mr. Dimon said in an interview in mid-January. Mr. Dimon added that there are “real problems” and “bills are too high” when it comes to health care.

Mr. Dimon is close friends with Mr. Buffett and friendly with Amazon chief

Jeff Bezos.

Messrs. Bezos and Dimon have bounced advice off each another in the past, and Mr. Bezos attended a JPMorgan leadership summit in Miami a few years ago, bank executives said.

Health-care spending in the U.S. grew 4.3% to $3.3 trillion in 2016, accounting for an 18% share of the nation’s gross domestic product, according to the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

The announcement is part of a larger trend of companies—particularly tech giant CEOs—taking it upon themselves to work on bigger societal projects, like sending people to space. Amazon Chief Executive Jeff Bezos founded Blue Origin LLC a decade ago to make reusable rockets and to lower launch costs.

Tesla
Inc.

Chief Executive

Elon Musk

has also formed a space company and has been working on a so-called hyperloop, a system for high-speed transportation in a near-vacuum state that takes place in miles-long tubes.

Write to Cara Lombardo at cara.lombardo@wsj.com, Laura Stevens at laura.stevens@wsj.com and Nicole Friedman at nicole.friedman@wsj.com



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