There’s nothing better than unbridled capitalism as expressed by loopy corporate mergers. I frequently proclaim that there’s a fortune to be made merging Jiffy Lube and Regal Cinemas. If you have to sit in a theater for two hours, when better to get an oil change? And merging a gym franchise with a plastic surgery chain and a string of cocktail lounges and hypnotists is a slam dunk: “One way or another, we’ll get you feeling good about yourself!” would be a solid gold slogan!
But the plan to merge a huge health insurer and a mammoth drugstore chain has, at best, mixed virtues. It would create a monster, giving information we don’t want to share to people with control over too much of our lives. It would give companies abilities they’d abuse. It would lead to uncomfortable questions from gum-snapping clerks about our peccadilloes. And what if it’s only the start?
CVS Health said Monday it intends to buy Aetna for $69 billion. Even in an era of mega-mergers, the transaction would be imposingly large. And on a dollars level, it makes sense.
CVS owns and operates about 10,000 pharmacies and clinics. For an insurer that pays for lots of the drugs and medical services CVS dispenses, controlling the interaction and pocketing the profits from the sales of the goods and services is all good.
But many of us buy lots of things other than serious remedies and preventive prescriptions at CVS. We buy beer, far too much of it. We buy our over-the-counter nostrums and remedies there, too. We purchase carts full of discounted post-Halloween and Valentine’s Day candy. Some of us sprint through the aisles with just-met life partners, searching for spur-of-the-moment birth control. And we buy magazines with cover stories explaining how aliens fall in love with regular Earth people, and how members of the British royal family fall in love with regular Earth people too.
CVS clerks and pharmacists don’t much care if we buy 10 pounds of chocolate GooGoo Clusters from the sale rack and ring it up with our monthly insulin injections. They’re in the business of selling, not judging (out loud). But what if they worked for CVSAetna?
“Um, I can’t sell more than a single fun-size Snickers to anyone with diabetes who is covered through our own health insurance,” a clerk might say. “Sorry, company policy. And you’re going to get a call from our health counselors just for trying to buy that candy.”
Just as bad as controlling us with all that personal information would be if the merged company used the power of the network to charge extortionary prices during the worst drugstore emergencies, like forgotten holidays and anniversaries.
“Honest to God, Honey, I would have bought a greeting card and a fancy Whitman’s Sampler to soothe your rage, but at 9:45 a.m. on Mother’s Day, that’s considered an emergency treatment” many a man will find himself explaining to his wife. “And we’re not in the CVS-Aetna-Burger King-Toyota-MAACO-Time Warner Cable network, we’re part of the Duane Reade-United Health Care-Jack In the Box-Ford-Netflix group, so the cards and candy are out of network. It was going to be $245, and we haven’t hit our greeting card deductible this year.”
Plus, it would only be a matter of time before the company merged with a player from one more industry that could hugely benefit from insider info from pharmacists.
“OK, so here are all your prescriptions — and you should be getting a call from our mortician partner tonight,” the clerk will say, implying a prognosis your doctor didn’t have the heart to share. “I’d go ahead and make arrangements. And here, you might as well enjoy some chocolate GooGoo Clusters.”
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.