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CVS Health CEO On Aetna Deal


A CVS Pharmacy commercial from 1990 portrays the pharmacist as a friend, a confidant.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As Gail) Judy, I'm so embarrassed. The school nurse sent Lisa home today with this note.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As pharmacist) Head lice really isn't that unusual, Gail.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As narrator) Personal questions, private conversations.

INSKEEP: That is the image that a pharmacy would prefer. Your actual experience at an actual pharmacy maybe a bit more impersonal, but CVS Health, as the company now calls itself, is pushing to provide a more comprehensive service. The company is buying the insurance firm Aetna, which, we should disclose, is an occasional sponsor of NPR programming. The CEO of CVS Health, Larry Merlo, says he wants to reinvent his stores as health care hubs, providing more consistent care to people with chronic conditions like diabetes.

LARRY MERLO: Imagine a world where that patient can walk into a CVS pharmacist, they can engage with a nutritionist about their diet. They can talk to a nurse practitioner, perhaps have their blood glucose level checked, talk to their pharmacist about medication.

INSKEEP: And the company hopes to be more competitive in a tough industry. Merlo told us how he thinks Aetna can help them.

MERLO: You think about the capabilities that Aetna has in terms of its ability to utilize information, and you combine that with the convenience and the human touch of CVS, and it gives us the opportunity to be more proactive in terms of how we engage patients, and you'll help them achieve the best health possible for them.

INSKEEP: What do you mean by information? Because if Aetna is my insurer, they know a lot, their computers have a lot of information about what I've been treated for in the past?

MERLO: Well, Steve, there's a lot of information out there. You think, today what we can do at CVS Pharmacy that, you know, we know if a patient has not filled their medication on time, and the fact that they haven't - let's talk to the patient. Let's find out why. So we're reacting to something after, you know, the events occurred. I think the Aetna team has the ability of using the information, you know, that they have in terms of, how can we be more predictive? You know, someone who is demonstrating behaviors that have not resulted in an unintended consequence but, you know, we can engage and intervene with them before something unnecessary happens.

INSKEEP: We should be frank, also. You're running a business there. You want to make a profit. You want a merger to be profitable. Do you see yourself packaging services for people - buy Aetna insurance, and we'll give you a discount on your drugs, or, whatever it might be?

MERLO: This combination is about reducing overall health care costs. And the ability to do that will allow us to bring products to market with, you know, lower premiums, perhaps lower deductibles. And that's how the system works.

INSKEEP: So assuming this merger goes through and CVS and Aetna are the same company, and someone walks in the doors of a CVS store with a prescription that they want filled and their insurer is Cigna, some non-Aetna insurance company, are they going to pay more?

MERLO: No, Steve, they wouldn't. And we want to make these services available broadly in the marketplace, and that is not our goal or our objective as we go forward.

INSKEEP: Do you want to expand even further? For example, bring doctors on board in some fashion in the company that you're assembling here?

MERLO: In the coming, you know, months, years, we're going to be testing and piloting a variety of, you know, alternatives that may include having physicians on site. I think that's something that we want to better understand as we go forward.

INSKEEP: So my pharmacy might also be my doctor's office?

MERLO: It potentially could be.

INSKEEP: Didn't you get your start as a pharmacist?

MERLO: I did. I started in 1978 as a pharmacist.

INSKEEP: So how was the work that you were doing decades ago behind that pharmacy counter different from the work that you envision people in CVS stores doing five years from now or 10 years from now?

MERLO: There are some things that, you know, haven't changed over time. Maybe I'll start there. You know, the pharmacist is the most accessible health care professional. Today you can walk into a pharmacy all across the country. You can engage in a conversation, whether it's about your medication or some symptoms that you're experiencing, and look for advice from the pharmacist. So I think what's evolving is, you know, that pharmacist can, you know, play an important role in terms of being a care coordinator and supporting - I keep referring to it as, you know, the care plan that helps patients with chronic disease stay adherent to that care plan.

INSKEEP: Larry Merlo of CVS Health, thanks very much.

MERLO: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.