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The Journal Gazette

Thursday, December 07, 2017 1:00 am

UnitedHealth acquiring 300 DeVita clinics

Carolyn Y. Johnson | Washington Post

The nation's largest insurer, UnitedHealth Group, announced Wednesday that it would buy a network of 300 primary care and specialist clinics from dialysis giant DaVita for $4.9 billion, in the latest deal reshaping the business of health insurance.

The deal, which does not include DaVita's main kidney care business, comes days after CVS Health agreed to buy health insurer Aetna for $69 billion. Both acquisitions reflect strategies to try to own major entry points into health care, whether it is primary care doctors or pharmacists, so that insurers can better coordinate care, keep people healthy and hopefully control costs.

“If you think about what Aetna and United are trying to do, basically they're trying to own the quarterback of care,” said Brian Tanquilut, an equity analyst at investment firm Jefferies. “At the end of the day, the beauty of owning these practices is you have greater control over a person's whole health care picture.”

Each strategy is slightly different. United's business segment, Optum, will acquire DaVita Medical Group, which includes 300 clinics that provide primary and specialist care, as well as urgent care centers and half a dozen surgery care centers. Those clinics serve 1.7 million patients each year in California, Colorado, Florida, Nevada, New Mexico and Washington. The acquisition – set to close next year – will expand the company's move into clinics and surgical care centers.

The deal “advances our shared goal of supporting physicians in delivering exceptional patient care in innovative and efficient ways,” Larry Renfro, Optum's chief executive, said in a statement.

In CVS' case, the deal joins 9,700 brick-and-mortar pharmacies with Aetna's 22 million medical members. The joint company plans to transform those locations into a primary access point for basic health care. The idea is that this nationwide network, including pharmacists and nurses, could help keep people well, managing chronic diseases before they become expensive emergencies and providing an alternative and cheaper venue for many kinds of basic health care.

Independent physicians have expressed reservations about the CVS deal, worrying they may be cut out of the equation and patients might get worse care. Physicians and insurers also have a long history of being in conflict, as insurers' efforts to manage costs by avoiding inappropriate or expensive care are sometimes seen by doctors as an attempt to overrule their judgment.