Shared Responsibility in the Affordable Care Act

Craig GarthwaiteRecently we wrote that it was well past time to end the employer mandate in the Affordable Care Act.  In light of some commentary, we thought it best to revisit this issue in more detail.  It seems that most of the support for the employer mandate comes from a misguided understanding of why employers are currently the primary source of private health insurance.  It is explicitly not because of a sense of “responsibility” to the employee, at least not any more responsibility than they feel when they pay employee wages for their work.

Here is a basic summary of how labor markets work, based on decades of very widely accepted academic research and practical experience. Employees receive compensation from their employers in return for their work product.  In other words, employers aren’t running charities for their workers, but neither are workers volunteering their time at firms.  Each expects something from the other. Some employee compensation comes in the form of cash wages and some in the form of fringe benefits such as health insurance, pensions, free coffee, parking, etc.

Either explicitly or implicitly, employers and employees negotiate these compensation packages with employers attempting to craft the least expensive package that the employee will accept.  Firms know they can offer employees tax free income in the form of health insurance and they exploit this feature of the tax code to the benefit of both employees and employers.  And for a variety of reasons, prior to the exchanges, it was often much easier for employers to purchase insurance than it was for employees to buy it on their own.  As a result, many Americans get insurance from their employer.  As an added “benefit” of this system, the whole country likely spends more on health insurance than we otherwise would and the federal government provides more tax benefits to the rich than to the poor.

It should be clear from this point that employers are not “giving” their employees health insurance.  We know this because when health insurance gets more expensive, wages don’t grow as quickly.  This is because employers are only interested in the cost of the total compensation package, and if health costs go up, wages must go down.

Failing to understand these basic economic points leads to poor arguments and harmful policies.  For example, in a recent Viewpoint in the Journal of the American Medical Association, John McDonough and Eli Adashi make an impassioned plea in favor of keeping the Section 1513 of the ACA also known as the “Shared Responsibility for Employers.”

Congress’ decision to call the requirement of employers to provide health insurance or pay a fine as a “shared responsibility of employers” is a master stroke of propaganda to which we must tip our hats.  However, we must see through this cute turn of phrase and realize that this section of the ACA simply enshrines some of the worst aspects of our current health insurance system and actively works against many of the actual goals of the ACA.  Unfortunately, McDonough and Adashi have their blinders on.  They state, “[t]he core value undergirding the shared responsibility principle is the realization that all of the major stakeholders of the health care system must contribute something if comprehensive health care reform is to be accomplished. Stated differently, making the ACA work requires a measure of  responsibility from consumers, hospitals, physicians, insurance companies, drug makers, medical device makers, home health agencies, labor, and—because of section 1513—large employers.”  This argument amounts to a bit of a tautology.  Large employers are a stakeholder in the health care system because we mandate them to be a part of it [under section 1513] and because we mandate that they offer insurance they are a stakeholder in the health care system.  McDonough and Adashi never ask the more fundamental question:  Why should employers even be part of the health care system to begin with?  If we are trying to implement health reform, shouldn’t we be looking to end those aspects of the system the create large distortions?

They then go all in by stating that the shared responsibility is a “public good especially for employers who might otherwise be inclined to shift the cost of employer sponsored health insurance onto the federal government and thereby the taxpayers.”  Much like calling the employer mandate a “shared responsibility,” saying that this is also a public good is at best a misapplication of the term. In economics we define a public good as having two characteristics:  you cannot stop another person from using it and its value doesn’t decrease when another person does use it.  Clean air and national defense are quintessential public goods.  But health insurance?  (This is hardly the first time that JAMA has published egregiously incorrect economic arguments.  We note in passing that the American Economic Review has the good sense not to publish medical studies.)

Then there is this question of “shifting the cost” of ESI onto the government.  This notion ignores that the burden of ESI already falls on the government because these benefits are exempt from incomes taxes. According to the White House Office of Management and Budget, in 2012 this cost the federal government approximately $170 billion.  Given the progressive nature of the United States Income Tax Code, this tax break is exceptionally regressive with an estimated five sixths of the benefits of the exemption flowing to the top half of the income distribution.  If employers stop offering health insurance, the competitive market for labor will force them to increase wages.  Because health insurance costs are roughly independent of wages, the resulting wage increase will be larger, in percentage terms, for lower income workers.  At the same time, federal tax receipts will increase and, given the progressive nature of the tax code, more of this money will come from richer Americans than from poorer Americans.  And if Congress could ever get its act together on tax reform, this could be part of a grand bargain resulting in lower overall marginal income tax rates.  This is what happens when you eliminate massive inefficiencies – everyone wins.  (Well, the bloated health sector would lose, as individuals might purchase less generous health insurance.  But isn’t the point of ongoing health policy to relieve us of this bloat?)

Firms that stop offering ESI could shift costs to the federal government to the extent that lower income individuals would now qualify for subsidies on the ACA exchanges.  We find it perplexing that ending the horizontal inequity of the ACA (i.e. the individuals with similar assets, income, and family structure face meaningfully different tax liability based on whether they get insurance from an employer vs. the exchange) would be seen as a negative.  Certainly this aspect of the ACA should be seen as a bug and not a feature.

We should also note that removing the employer mandate is not the same as ending employer provided health insurance. As noted health economist Mark Pauly has said many times, employees may value the services of their employers as a knowledge broker for insurance. In addition, firms with a high percentage of relatively well compensated employees may find it is economically advantageous to give up the subsidies on the exchange in order to retain their tax free insurance (though this seems to be more of an argument in favor of ending the tax exemption).  All we are asking for by ending the mandate is allowing the exchanges to compete on a more even footing with ESI.  Even if we do not eliminate the perversions of the current tax code, ending the mandate would benefit many employees and create a thicker and healthier market for the exchanges which should improve both the options and pricing.

David Dranove and Craig Garthwaite are economists at The Kellogg School of Business.