CVS may be a leader in health-care transformation


Adapted from Robert Whitcomb’s “Digital Diary,’’ in

Woonsocket-based CVS’s purchase of Aetna, the huge insurance company, could at least start to make fragmented and exorbitantly expensive U.S. health care a bit more coherent as well as cutting costs for consumers, both in medical-visit bills and insurance premiums. (We’ll see if that happens in our profit-obsessed system.)

Of course, other pharmacy chains and insurers will also tie the knot.

By putting together the insurance function and the direct provision of care, the merger will help create better, more complete patient medical records, thus facilitating better, especially preventive, care. And by helping to make many CVS drugstores even more of the primary-care/preventive-care centers that they’ve been becoming the past few years, the merger should take the pressure off astronomically expensive hospital emergency rooms, whose overuse is one reason that America’s health-care system is so expensive and inefficient.

Much of the treatment in CVS’s Minute Clinics is provided by nurse practitioners and physician assistants, who are less expensive than U.S. physicians -- the world’s highest paid. The American Medical Association has opposed the merger in part because it fears that the competition will cut doctors’ pay.

Importantly, the merger will strengthen CVS in negotiating with drug makers, which, protected by massive lobbying operations in Washington, charge by far the highest prices in the world – indeed sometimes engage in price-gouging. Those prices are yet another reason why health-care costs threaten to bankrupt the country.

(Happily, Trump signed two bipartisan bills into law last week to ban so-called gag clauses at the pharmacy counter. The bills, the Patient Right to Know Act and the Know the Lowest Price Act, would let pharmacists tell patients that they could save money by paying cash for drugs or try a lower-cost alternative. The existence of gag clauses was an outrage.)

We won’t know for several years what the full effects of the CVS-Aetna merger will be but it’s obvious that this experiment could profoundly affect many millions of Americans.

Will consumers benefit, as well as CVS senior executives and other shareholders?