A colleague pointed this out to me recently, and I think he has it right: While more people will have health insurance as a result of the federal health care reform act, a side effect will be to reduce the number of people insured through the employer-based insurance plans that have characterized the US health care system. These people will either be insured as individuals through the state exchanges that are to be established or, if eligible, through Medicaid. There are three aspects of economic hydraulics that are likely to lead to this result.
First, the penalty to be assessed against employers for not offering coverage — $2000 per year — is dramatically below the cost of providing insurance. If you are an employers and can save, say, $5,000 by paying $2,000, why wouldn’t you do that? And the $2000 is not even indexed to inflation, while the annual charge for an employer-sponsored plan is likely to go up over time. Hence the differential will grow every year.
In the past, the provision of a health care benefit was viewed as competitive factor in hiring and retaining a firm’s work force. But for the vast majority of businesses, that may be a less important factor than saving a few thousand dollars per employee and being able to offer a portion of those savings in higher wages and/or improving the profitability of the firm. Sure, some businesses might still want to attract workers by having their own semi-customized insurance benefit, but the power of that is likely to diminish over time.
A second factor is that the so-called “Cadillac” tax will make employer-sponsored health care even more expensive if you have a plan with generous benefits. Health coverage in excess of $10,200 for individual plans and $27,500 for family plans will be hit with a 40 percent excise tax on the amount in excess of the floor. The tax is indexed for inflation plus 1 percent.
Finally, to help avoid the excise tax, employers are going to “dumb down” plan designs by raising deductibles and co-pays. As they do so, the substantive difference between their own plans and the ones that will be offered through state exchanges or Medicaid will diminish. Even if you have a residual concern that your workers may want an employer-based plan, their desire might be diminished as you make your plan less attractive, so you lose little in competitiveness by referring them to the non-employer based plans.
There are those who believe that there was an ideological basis for this construct, that the Administration and a majority of Congress wanted people to move away from employer-based health insurance as part of an eventual movement to a federally chartered single-payer regime. Others say that it is just an natural extension of a bill that created important protections — benefit mandates, a floor for medical loss ratios, guaranteed issue, restrictions on medical underwriting — all of which act to increase the cost of insurance products.
Whatever the reason, we should expect that the world of employer-based health insurance that was created in the 1940s in the United States will rather rapidly move away from that system to one in which government-controlled insurance exchanges and direct government pay (Medicare and Medicaid) will rule. On the latter point, I have have now heard a couple of people estimate that the percentage of the US population covered by government payers can be expected to rise from the current mid-30s% to about 50% over the coming five years or so, abetted by the factors mentioned above but also by expanded income eligibility for Medicaid.