Amazon.com Inc. agreed to buy the online pharmacy startup PillPack, jumping into the health-care business with a deal that will give the retail giant an immediate nationwide drug network.
The move represents a formidable threat to pharmacy chains including Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc., which earlier Thursday reported tepid U.S. same-store sales, and rival CVS Health Corp. Walgreens was down 10 percent at 10:18 a.m. in New York, while CVS shares shed 8.9 percent.
Terms of the deal weren’t disclosed. The transaction is expected to close in the second half of 2018, according to a statement from the companies.
The U.S. market for prescription medicine is huge. In 2016, U.S. consumers spent $328.6 billion on retail prescription drugs, according to the U.S. government. CVS reported prescription sales of $59.5 billion last year, and Walgreens sold $57.8 billion worth of drugs in its fiscal 2017.
PillPack has mail-order pharmacy licenses in all 50 U.S. states, which could allow Amazon to expand quickly. PillPack also has relationships with most major drug-benefit managers, including Express Scripts and CVS, and says it works with most Medicare Part D drug plans. Those ties will give Amazon access to much of the prescription drug market in the U.S.
PillPack sells pre-sorted packets of prescriptions drugs, delivering them to customers in their homes. The closely held firm has software that automates many routine pharmacy tasks, such as verifying when a refill is due, determining co-pays, and confirming insurance. That eliminates much of the manual work that pharmacists often are saddled with now.
The pact follows months of speculation about Amazon’s plans to get into the pharmacy or drug-distribution business. Despite the retailer’s vast reach, entering the market presented a daunting logistical challenge in terms of licensing and dealing with a range of private and government payers. Acquiring PillPack’s networks helps Amazon surmount those hurdles.
Michael Rea, chief executive officer of Rx Savings Solutions, said PillPack could transform the industry and that employers and health plans would benefit from the deal, which he called a “sign of the times.”
“This move signals just how big of a market opportunity there is to change the pharmacy landscape,” Rea said in an email.
Amazon has been disrupting businesses from electronics to household staples and even package delivery. Pharmacy and health-benefits companies have long fretted that they’d be next. Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos signaled his interest in health-care earlier this year when he teamed up with Berkshire Hathaway Inc.’s Warren Buffett and JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s Jamie Dimon to form a health-care company to manage the health plans of their more than 1 million employees.
The selloff in drugstore stocks was reminiscent of the food-industry swoon that resulted in June 2017 when Amazon said it was buying Whole Foods Market Inc. Kroger Co., the biggest U.S. supermarket chain, saw $2 billion in market value wiped out in one day. Big packaged food stocks also took a hit.
“When Amazon sneezes, everybody else catches a cold,” said Joseph Feldman, an analyst with Telsey Advisory. “And I think that that’s more likely than not what you’re going to see today.”’
Long Time Coming
Prescription drugs sales are largely intertwined with groceries and personal items like makeup and shampoo and Amazon already sells bulk packs of latex gloves, bed pads and syringes. It recently began selling medical devices and instruments, as well.
Bezos has been thinking about the drug business for nearly two decades; in 1999, Amazon purchased a stake in Drugstore.com. That effort ultimately failed and Walgreens purchased the money-losing startup in 2011 and ultimately shut it down.
Pharmacist TJ Parker and computer scientist Elliot Cohen founded PillPack in 2013 after meeting at a medical-technology program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The company raised more than $118 million from brand-name investors including Accel, Sherpa Capital and New York rapper Nas’s Queensbridge Venture Partners.
A September 2016 funding round valued the Boston-based startup at around $360 million, according to venture-capital database PitchBook. In April, CNBC reported Walmart Inc. was in talks to buy the company for “under $1 billion,” citing unnamed sources.
For now, Walgreens indicated that it was in no hurry to find a deal to respond to Amazon, despite the damage to its stock. On an earnings conference call, Walgreens CEO Stefano Pessina faced multiple questions from analysts about the PillPack deal.
“It is a declaration of intent from Amazon,” said Pessina.
He said Walgreens knew that PillPack was for sale as “it had been for sale for a while,” but that the retailer wouldn’t do deals based on emotions or make moves that could destroy value. Pessina insisted that physical pharmacies would continue to be “very important.”
The slump in Walgreens shares weighed on the Dow Jones Industrial Average, which added the stock to its index of 30 companies this month, replacing General Electric Co.
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