SEATTLE — Three corporate behemoths — Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase — announced on Tuesday that they would form an independent health care company for their employees in the United States.
The alliance was a sign of just how frustrated American businesses are with the state of the nation’s health care system and the rapidly spiraling cost of medical treatment. It also caused further turmoil in an industry reeling from attempts by new players to attack a notoriously inefficient, intractable web of doctors, hospitals, insurers and pharmaceutical companies.
It was unclear how extensively the three partners would overhaul their employees’ existing health coverage — whether they would simply help workers find a local doctor, steer employees to online medical advice or use their muscle to negotiate lower prices for drugs and procedures. While the alliance will apply only to their employees, these corporations are so closely watched that whatever successes they have could become models for other businesses.
Major employers, from Walmart to Caterpillar, have tried for years to tackle the high costs and complexity of health care, and have grown increasingly frustrated as Congress has deadlocked over the issue, leaving many of the thorniest issues to private industry. About 151 million Americans get their health insurance from an employer.
(Why will health care be so difficult for these companies to untangle? Analysis from The Upshot.)
But Tuesday’s announcement landed like a thunderclap — sending stocks for insurers and other major health companies tumbling. Shares of health care companies like UnitedHealth Group and Anthem plunged on Tuesday, dragging down the broader stock market.
That weakness reflects the strength of the new entrants. The partnership brings together Amazon, the online retail giant known for disrupting major industries; Berkshire Hathaway, the holding company led by the billionaire investor Warren E. Buffett; and JPMorgan Chase, the largest bank in the United States by assets.
The companies said the initiative, which is in its early stages, would be “free from profit-making incentives and constraints,” but did not specify whether that meant they would create a nonprofit organization. The tax implications were also unclear because so few details were released.
Jamie Dimon, the chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, said in a statement that the effort could eventually be expanded to benefit all Americans.
The announcement touched off a wave of speculation about what the new company might do, especially given Amazon’s extensive reach into the daily lives of Americans — from where they buy their paper towels to what they watch on television. It follows speculation that the company, which recently purchased the grocery chain Whole Foods, might use its stores as locations for pharmacies or clinics.
“It could be big,” Ed Kaplan, who negotiates health coverage on behalf of large employers as the national health practice leader for the Segal Group, said of the announcement. “Those are three big players, and I think if they get into health care insurance or the health care coverage space, they are going to make a big impact.”
But others were less sure, noting that the three companies — which, combined, employ more than one million people — might still hold little sway over the largest insurers and pharmacy benefit managers, who oversee the benefits of tens of millions of Americans.
“This is not news in terms of jumbo employers being frustrated with what they can get through the traditional system,” said Sam Glick of the management consulting firm Oliver Wyman in San Francisco. He played down the notion that the three partners would have more success getting lower prices from hospitals and doctors. “The idea that they could have any sort of negotiation leverage with unit cost is a pretty far stretch.”
Even the three companies don’t seem to be sure of how to shake up health care. People briefed on the plan, who asked for anonymity because the discussions were private, said the executives decided to announce the initiative while still a concept in part so they can begin hiring staff for the new company.
Three people familiar with the partnership said it took shape as Mr. Bezos, Mr. Buffett, and Mr. Dimon, who are friends, discussed the challenges of providing insurance to their employees. They decided their combined access to data about how consumers make choices, along with an understanding of the intricacies of health insurance, would inevitably lead to some kind of new efficiency — whatever it might turn out to be.
“The ballooning costs of health care act as a hungry tapeworm on the American economy,” Mr. Buffett said in the statement. “Our group does not come to this problem with answers. But we also do not accept it as inevitable.”
Over the past several months, the three had met formally — along with Todd Combs, an investment officer at Berkshire Hathaway who is also on JPMorgan’s board — to discuss the idea, according to a person familiar with Mr. Buffett’s thinking.
The three chief executives saw one another at the Alfalfa Club dinner in Washington on Saturday, but by then each had already had dozens of conversations with the small in-house teams they had assembled. The plan was set.
Mr. Buffett’s motivation stems in part from conversations he has had with two people close to him who have been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, according to the person. Mr. Buffett, the person said, believes the condition of the country’s health care system is a root cause of economic inequality, with wealthier people enjoying better, longer lives because they can afford good coverage As Mr. Buffett himself has aged — he is 87 — the contrast between his moneyed friends and others has grown starker, the person said.
The companies said they would initially focus on using technology to simplify care, but did not elaborate on how they intended to do that or bring down costs. One of the people briefed on the alliance said the new company wouldn’t replace existing health insurers or hospitals.
Planning for the new company is being led by Marvelle Sullivan Berchtold, a JPMorgan managing director who was previously head of the Swiss drugmaker Novartis’s mergers and acquisitions strategy; Mr. Combs; and Beth Galetti, a senior vice president at Amazon.
One potential avenue for the partnership might be an online health care dashboard that connects employees with the closest and best doctor specializing in whatever ailment they select from a drop-down menu. Perhaps the companies would strike deals to offer employee discounts with service providers like medical testing facilities.
“Each of those companies has extensive experience using transformative technology in their own businesses,” said John Sculley, the former chief executive of Apple who is now chairman of a health care start-up, RxAdvance. “I think it’s a great counterweight to what government leadership hasn’t done, which is to focus on how do we make this health care system sustainable.”