How Do The Big PBMs Grow?

By now, the idea of a PBM and who they are is much more of a household item than it was a decade ago.  We’ve seen massive consolidation in the industry.  We’ve seen PBMs grow in the specialty PBM space.  The question I often ponder is what’s next.  Here’s some of my thoughts.

  1. Do Nothing.  Obviously, there’s a lot to be said for ongoing momentum.  The PBMs have shown growth for many years.  While the generic opportunity and the mail opportunity has slowed down, there are still opportunities in the specialty space.  
  2. Distribution. This seems like an obvious possibility.  Why not buy Cardinal, AmerisourceBergen, or someone else?  Procurement and distribution are core competencies so I think this makes some sense.  But, will that create issues in the current client list and retail pharmacies and PBMs haven’t always had the best relationships.  (E.g., Express Scripts GPO with Kroger)
  3. Pharma.  This has been debated by a few PBMs, but getting into the R&D space is risky and doesn’t build on their core competencies.  What could be more interesting would be them getting into the services space by acquiring a company like IMS or Quintiles.  
  4. International.  Several PBMs have tried this model.  In general, it hasn’t gone anywhere.  I think the international collaboration of Walgreens and Boots is really interesting and other retailers have gone international.  I don’t see this happening anytime soon with any material impact.  
  5. Physician.  Having a greater impact in the prescribing process could make a lot of sense.  I could see some interesting targets in terms of Allscripts, Cerner, or athenahealth.  This has been a challenge for years with a few ventures into the space.  (e.g., CVS Caremark and iScribe)
  6. Technology.  At the end of the day, the PBMs are large technology companies.  Could they see their way into the mHealth space?  This space is growing like crazy, and you’re seeing established players get into the remote patient monitoring space (e.g., AT&T and Qualcomm).  I could see an acquisition in this area of a telehealth company (e.g., Teladoc) or a device company (e.g., Welldoc).  Or, they could build something more organically.  On the flipside, they could look at technology platforms to open doors to care management or ACOs (e.g., Lumeris).  Alternative, I could see SoloHealth as a really interesting asset.    
  7. Retail.  With a few exceptions, I think this strategy is off the table.  I’ve loved the CVS Caremark integration for years, and I think it’s showing dividends.  Rite-Aid is probably the only big acquisition target out there.  In this space, you probably have to look at it the other way.  Would any retailers (e.g., Walmart, Walgreens, Target) buy a PBM?  Walgreens got rid of their PBM, and Walmart has said they don’t want to be in that market so I’m not sure that would go anywhere.  
  8. Insurer.  I think this one has some interesting opportunities from a Medicare perspective and from a commercial perspective.  Could PBMs create an underwritten product and take on risk?  I think yes, BUT I think that could impact their need for reserves and the way the market sees them.  That makes me think this is less likely, but possible.  
  9. Device Benefit Management.  I think several ex-PBM executives have gone out to try to build the “benefit management” concept into the healthcare marketplace in other areas (e.g., IPG).  Could an existing PBM do it and cross-sell into their base?  Perhaps.  But, a stretch.  They’re getting big so they want to buy meaningful revenue, create synergies, and then grow it.  
  10. Navigation.  The most used benefit is pharmacy.  Today, consumers touch the healthcare system most frequently through retail and their daily prescriptions.  With the ongoing complication of the health benefits, there is a huge need for navigators (and not just in the healthcare.gov use of the term).  Think about companies like Health Advocate or Accolade.
  11. Data.  With the RxAnte acquisition, it has to make you wonder about PBMs and their data assets.  How can they use them differently?  Can they create apps?  Can they create algorithms to license?  What would this look like?  What about companies like Proteus?  Perhaps, a PBM could consolidate several unique assets along the device, smart bottle, data path.
  12. Condition specific.  I could see some PBMs going deep on particular areas like oncology to really build out an oncology practice that did everything from second opinions to case management to end-of-life counseling.  Those could all wrap around the drugs.  Or, imagine them going into the chronic kidney care space by acquiring a company like DaVita.  
  13. Providers.  While there could be some interesting synergies here with a large hospital group (e.g., HCA) or some ACO/PCMH players, I see that more of a managed care play for rolling up companies.  The ROIC (Return on Invested Capital) is too different in these physical operations that I see that being a struggle.  And, I think there’s lots of concerns about the hospital needs over time.  

Which path plays out…I don’t know, but I think it’s getting close to time that you’ll see another shift in the market as they try to secure their next 10 years of growth by expanding into something that builds on their core competencies.  

I think the other question would be if they focus on differentiation by really showing material differences in outcomes and engagement rates and look at how they show an overall health ROI not just Rx specific.  That would be where I would place my bets and look at which of these options support that.  Maybe we’ll see a PBM X (like Google X) doing some strategic long-term deals to change the overall healthcare roadmap.  

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4 Responses to “How Do The Big PBMs Grow?”

  1. George – Wall Street of course will continue to command for growth, and PBM’s CEO’s need to continue to evolve their strategies to meet these expectations, but I think the latest round of acquisitions have caused tremendous problems and rumblings from their current client bases.

    What are the risks that you see in taking their eye away from their core competencies of providing PBM services to their current customers vs. focusing on some of these new opportunities? Or is it time for the PBM’s to again focus on increasing customer satisfaction from the client basis for the current services offering before trying to offer additional services?

  2. Interesting article, but I think misses the obvious. PBM’s serve employers and plans with a highly effective benefit management platform. It happens to be concentrated on pharmacy. There are several new and interesting market developments that will catch their eye…namely Wellness/Engagement/Behavior change; compliance/adherence to medications and other things that will tie back to the core health benefit of individual employees. The PBMs are ideally suited to take on this task as they have so much technical experience in making this work from the top down to the level of the individual.

    • I agree. They have been successful with employers and plans. The question is what next. Growth has happened by moving into new markets doing the same thing and market consolidation. There’s not much left there.

      They’ll have to find an adjunct space. They need show billion dollar leaps in growth. That will only come through acquisition. So, who do they acquire and how does that complement their core competencies?

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  1. Getting Back Into The PBM Industry | Enabling Healthy Decisions - May 5, 2014

    […] PBMs are big and need to grow so they’ll have to do some creative […]

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