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Intermountain and Sanford control 70 hospitals across the West and Midwest. Photo: Intermountain Healthcare

Intermountain Healthcare and Sanford Health have agreed to merge, creating a system of 70 hospitals, hundreds of physician practices, and two health insurance companies across the West and Midwest, pending state and federal regulatory reviews.

Why it matters: A combined Intermountain-Sanford system would generate $15 billion of annual revenue, making it bigger than BlackRock or Uber, and would highlight how hospital systems are still pushing to consolidate despite the coronavirus pandemic.

Between the lines: Intermountain and Sanford have both benefited from coronavirus bailout funding, registering a combined $300 million in taxpayer-funded payments, according to financial statements.

  • Intermountain and Sanford, both tax-exempt systems, have also registered operating and net profits in the first half of this year, despite the slowdown in care due to the pandemic.

What they're saying: Intermountain CEO Marc Harrison said in a statement the merger will allow the two systems to "make health care more affordable for our communities."

  • Reality check: Academic literature has consistently shown hospital mergers lead to higher prices and no improvement in care quality.

Flashback: At this year's JPMorgan Healthcare Conference, Harrison said, "We have an absolute responsibility to make health care as affordable as possible," right before Intermountain's CFO touted the system's cash surplus and patient collections.

  • Last year, Sanford also tried merging with another large regional hospital system, UnityPoint Health, before calling the deal off.

Go deeper

Updated Jan 15, 2021 - Axios Events

Watch: Affordability and the next administration

On Friday, January 15, Axios' Caitlin Owens hosted a conversation on the future of health care affordability with a new Biden administration, featuring former CMS administrator Dr. Mark McClellan and former Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.)

Dr. Mark McClellan discussed the priorities of the incoming Biden administration and challenges in health care access and affordability exacerbated by the pandemic.

  • On President-elect Biden dealing with the pandemic: "[He] was elected above all else for an effective response to the crisis. And that means the first round of legislation has to focus on more effective vaccination, more effective testing, reopening the economy, and giving people the economic support they need."
  • On people not getting the care they need during the pandemic: "We've seen a lot of health care complications because people did not get help. We don't have a strong public health system in this country...Most people did not get help. If they were at risk for infections, they had to go find a way to get tested on their own."

Rep. Greg Walden unpacked the value of telemedicine and creating an affordable, patient-centered health care system.

  • How technology can bridge existing health gaps: "We've learned the importance and practicality of getting health care closer to the patient. I'm speaking specifically about telemedicine. I think it can be both cost-effective and so much more convenient for the patient...You shouldn't have to rush into a hospital for everything you need."

Axios Vice President Yolanda Taylor Brignoni hosted a View from the Top segment with the CEO of OptumHealth, UnitedHealth Group, Dr. Wyatt W. Decker, who discussed the pandemic as a moment for the industry to think differently about how they provide accessible care.

  • On the potential for telemedicine: "Let's put the decision-making, good information, and support in the hands of a person and help provide them with digital tools that can give them easy access to health care with excellent outcomes. We [can] do this in a whole variety of ways by providing telehealth solutions."

Thank you UnitedHealth Group for sponsoring this event.

The front-runners for Biden's Supreme Court pick

Judge Kentaji Brown Jackson (left) and Justice Leondra Kruger (right) Tom Williams-Pool/Getty Images and Lonnie Tague, US Department of Justice

Two highly accomplished Black female judges — Ketanji Brown Jackson, a judge on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals; and Leondra Kruger, a justice on the California Supreme Court — are seen as the early front-runners to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer.

The big picture: Jackson is a powerful federal judge with a record that progressives feel they can trust. Kruger was a highly regarded litigator and has carved out a reputation for working well with conservative judges.

Fed: Rate hikes are near

The Federal Reserve's headquarters building. Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

The Federal Reserve is on track to raise its main target interest rate in mid-March, as Chair Jerome Powell pledged to be "humble and nimble" in adapting policy to a fast-changing economy.

Why it matters: Fed leaders are looking to choke off inflation by raising interest rates in the near future, but keeping its options open for how fast and far the effort will go.