J.P. Morgan Health Conference All About The Deals Amid Uncertainty For Millions

Lambert here: Plenty of telling detail; Biden popped in for a keynote, no doubt in search of “investor blocs,” as Thomas Ferguson calls them.

By Barbara Feder Ostrov, Kaiser Health News. Originally published at Kaiser Health News.

SAN FRANCISCO — There’s so much money floating around here this week, you can almost see it wafting through the air.

About 10,000 attendees, mostly confident men in well-cut suits and even nicer watches, are packing the elegant Westin St. Francis Hotel for the invite-only J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference, which ends Thursday.

For many of these investors, health providers, insurers and entrepreneurs at the nation’s largest and most prestigious health investment conference, it’s all about the deal — and the after-hours parties.

In the first few days of what’s become known as J.P. Morgan Week, New Jersey-based Celgene announced it would spend up to $7 billion to acquire Impact Biomedicines. And Novo Nordisk, the world’s biggest insulin maker, bid $3.1 billion for a Belgian biotech firm.

For those who didn’t land a coveted invite, satellite conferences on digital health and biotechnology dot the city, offering lesser mortals an opportunity to network and make their own deals. Former Vice President Joe Biden even popped into town to keynote the StartUp Health Festival satellite conference, speaking about cancer treatment costs and electronic health records.

The J.P. Morgan gathering comes at a jarring time when you consider that the other world of health care is flooded with uncertainty for the millions of ordinary Americans who inhabit it. They face a precarious political landscape in which the future of the Affordable Care Act remains uncertain and Republican leaders in Congress mull dramatic cuts to Medicaid and Medicare.

John Baackes, CEO of the nation’s largest public health plan, L.A. Care, which insures 2.1 million low-income patients, said if his enrollees wandered into the conference, “they’d think they were in a foreign land and that this has nothing to do with them.”

Much of U.S. health care is underwritten by public dollars, but people here didn’t come to talk about that or rising costs, particularly for prescription drugs. Only a few presentations at this year’s conference have touched on prices, including a J.P. Morgan study released Monday that found many Americans put off medical care until they get their tax refund — a clear sign that that they don’t have enough saved up to pay for care when they need it.

“It’s just so striking how much maneuvering and desire there is at this meeting for a piece of the 18 percent of GDP spent on health care,” mused Dr. Vivian Lee, the former leader of the University of Utah Health Care system, who made a point of tracking costs with pinpoint precision. “Is anyone here trying to decrease their share?”

Baackes, who comes to the conference to network and monitor the latest developments in health care, said he’s always skeptical of the well-heeled company officials who attend promising better health outcomes and cost savings. “In a way, there’s too much money walking around here,” he said. “Investors are thinking, ‘Health care is a $3 trillion sector of the economy; surely it will benefit from my genius.’”

Many attendees view the conference with a less critical eye.

“It’s a useful place for us to be,” said Amanda Cowley, strategy director of the quasi-governmental organization that produces the U.S. Pharmacopeia, a compendium of information and standards for producing medicines and food ingredients. Cowley said she and her colleagues need to learn about emerging health technologies so they can anticipate their future work products.

Cowley stood in a line of hundreds of attendees waiting to dine on tri-tip, vegetables and macarons while listening to Microsoft founder Bill Gates talk about how his foundation is helping improve the health of subsistence farmers and children in the developing world.

But there was little talk of America’s subsistence patients, who often cannot afford the expensive drugs and medical devices that are bought and sold in deals brokered at conferences like these, in private rooms guarded by phalanxes of staffers at tony hotels.

Those patients, however, were the focus of a Medicaid panel held Tuesday at Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco’s troubled Tenderloin district, a few blocks and a world away from the Westin St. Francis. That event, which drew about 70 people, was sponsored by ConsejoSano, a Southern California-based startup that has raised $7.2 million to help Spanish speakers better navigate the health system.

Rallying the troops at Glide was former Medicare and Medicaid chief Andy Slavitt, a fierce critic of Republican efforts to repeal and replace the ACA. Slavitt recently invested in Cityblock Health, a public health startup focusing on Medicaid and other low-income patients.

The good thing about J.P. Morgan Week, Slavitt told Kaiser Health News, is that it draws innovative people who want to invest. “The question is, should health care capital be focused on solving big problems and getting rewarded for them, or just focused on the status quo?”

Kaiser Health News is a nonprofit news service covering health issues. It is an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation that is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Clive

    Reminds me somewhat of a conference I unwisely attended as trustee of a patient group charity — the conference was on the topic of the pharmaceutical industry “engagement” with the voluntary sector. Notionally, it was an opportunity for the patient groups to help shape the direction of pharmaceutical investment decisions. Essentially, it was supposed to be a chance for some grassroots-up rather than top-down decisioning by the drug companies.

    In reality it was more akin to a whorehouse — representatives from the patient groups invited to parade their product, which was influence and a lending of credibility, to the potential bidders (big pharma). The patient groups could be divided into two sorts. One, like mine, was just fresh meat on the meat rack to be sized up and, if they didn’t bring enough potentially tasty morsels to big pharma’s insatiable table, to be left as wallflowers on the periphery. The others were the mega charity organisations which operate more like corporations and the shadowy “research grant givers” (alleged charities which exist only to channel funding into so-called medical research via for-profit university or college campuses or big pharma themselves directly). These were both buying and selling, sometimes doing both with the same pharmaceutical player at the same time.

    Unseemly. But a group of archangels compared to what was going on at the JPM shindig.

  2. MikeS

    There’s something deeply sick about a valuing system that only knows how to pay people to make more problems, more sickness, more work for themselves. Invent a problem, and then sell your “solution” to it. That’s pretty much every business model ever.

  3. ckimball

    “SAN FRANCISCO — There’s so much money floating around here this week, you can almost see it wafting through the air.”
    Hey there! What’s the difference between humor and odor? If humor is a shaft of wit then odor is…..

    I just had to. The particular word brought up the question which my father, who had a litany of them,
    entertained me in his slightly irreverent way so long ago. thanks

  4. Buzz

    Ever wonder what life might be like if you lived in a country where other people didn’t decide your future ?

  5. kiwi

    Well, as soon as the medical industry sucks up all the wealth accumulated by the early boomers and the Greatest Generation, and as more people earn less and less, it will be completely dependent on the 1%-ers.

    Will that group be enough to sustain the greed?

      1. Massinissa

        Honestly Im not convinced they can. You can only supply so much healthcare to the super rich, no matter how heavily the health industry jacks up prices. At some point the super rich get healthy enough they dont need to buy any additional healthcare to what they have.

  6. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

    Much of U.S. health care is underwritten by public dollars, but people here didn’t come to talk about that or rising costs, particularly for prescription drugs. Only a few presentations at this year’s conference have touched on prices, including a J.P. Morgan study released Monday that found many Americans put off medical care until they get their tax refund — a clear sign that that they don’t have enough saved up to pay for care when they need it.

    That’s one way for taxpayers to spend money into existence…government prints or borrows money to give ‘refund.’

    One can consider that as government spending (indirectly, through taxpayers, not through, say the State Department).

    1. John Zelnicker

      @MyLessThanPrimeBeef, January 14, 2018 at 1:33 pm – Consider that a large part of most people’s tax refund is a return of their wages that were withheld from their pay checks, so it isn’t really government spending, it’s a refund of the taxpayer’s money. The other part is refundable tax credits such as the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and others. These are new dollars that do constitute new government spending.

      I would also argue that this spending is not “indirect” as it is handled the same was as all other government spending. Instructions are sent to the recipient’s bank to increase the balance in their bank account giving them additional purchasing power, just like the paychecks for State Department employees, or the payment of rent for embassy locations.

    2. Knute Rife

      If you are in bankruptcy (at least in a Chapter 13), the Code and court decisions have already made it so you can’t save money to buy a new car; if you’re car breaks down, you have to buy another with new, undischargeable debt. Now we see proof of what those of us in the business have known all along: People depend on their tax refunds to buy essentials. And what happens to the tax refund in bankruptcy? The trustee takes it (Well, in Chapter 13s here, the trustee takes only the part that exceeds $1,000.). So once again the debtor has to take on new, undischargeable debt just to get by. Welcome to America’s favorite game show, Wheel of Debt and Death.

  7. todd

    Being a Psoriasis patient, the treatments are the new “biologics”!
    Nobody takes the biologics. That is why you see so many commercials!
    The drug, the biologic, that is the top selling drug in the world, that begins with an “H”.
    According to the FDA Adverse Event database, that drug that starts with an “H”, the top selling drug in the world, kills about 5 people per day in the US.
    New molecules, equals dangerous treatments, deaths and big profits.

  8. redleg

    This is so disgusting that I can’t finish reading the article. These people should be the first against the wall when the revolution comes, to paraphrase Adams.

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