I was a bit surprised by the front-page headline and accompanying article in the weekend Wall Street Journal (IBM to Move Retirees Off Its Health Rolls). The headline and subtext of the article are that IBM is ending health benefits for retirees, leaving them to fend for themselves. But as I read through the specifics that doesn’t appear to be at all what’s happening. Unfortunately, the article’s main impact is to leave an unduly negative impression of private health insurance exchanges.
Retiree health benefits are a big deal, especially for employees who retire before they reach the Medicare eligibility age of 65. A typical early retiree in his or her 50s will face high premiums in the individual market compared to a younger, and typically healthier, person. If they are among the few whose company provides generous coverage they are very lucky.
[On a side note, life is about to get easier for early retirees who have to buy their own insurance, thanks to Obamacare’s banning of medical underwriting and limits on the ratio of premiums charged to older people versus younger ones.]
When a person turns 65 life gets a lot easier on the health insurance front as the federal government takes over the vast majority of costs. As a result, a retiree on Medicare is much cheaper for an employer to provide health care benefits to, since they are essentially just paying for supplemental coverage.
Last month, the Obama Administration announced that it would delay enforcement of the employer mandate component of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in part due to opposition from the business community. Opponents of the ACA cited the delay as evidence that the law was collapsing under its own weight, while ACA proponents downplayed the importance of the employer mandate in realizing the primary objective of the law – extending affordable coverage to millions of uninsured Americans.
Will delaying the employer mandate lead to the ACA’s demise?
Using economic modeling, we have found that the primary goals of the ACA will not be impacted by the delay, but the delay may impact one of the law’s key revenue sources designed to offset the costs of the coverage provisions.
Under the ACA, only firms with 50 or more full-time employees can be assessed penalties for not offering coverage under the employer mandate; small businesses with fewer than 50 employees are exempt. Furthermore, more than 95% of large firms already offer insurance, implying that only a small pool of firms would need to alter their current benefit offerings to comply with the employer mandate. Our model estimates that less than 1% of firms, employing about 2% of the workforce, would be penalized for not offering insurance to their workers if the employer mandate is enforced.
In fact, only about 300,000 workers (approximately 0.2% of the workforce) would lose their employer’s health insurance as a result of the employer mandate delay, according to our economic analysis. And many of those losing coverage would be able to get affordable coverage through a spouse, the newly created health insurance exchanges, or Medicaid. Hence, delaying the employer mandate will have only a nominal impact on the ability of workers and their dependents to obtain health coverage.
As a confident critic of ObamaCare from its genesis, I’m impressed that the law remains unpopular and that the American people appear ready to scrap it and start again. Last March, a senior bureaucrat in charge of rolling out ObamaCare fretted about a “third-world experience“.
ObamaCare’s opponents have managed to keep Republican politicians unified against the law. The only tactical question is whether the GOP can credibly threaten to “shut down the government” during the forthcoming debate over the Continuing Resolution (the legislation that funds the government in the absence of a budget).
It’s been a good three and a half years for ObamaCare’s opponents. Nevertheless, outside the political realm, businesses and investors are behaving as if ObamaCare is hardened concrete. Although ObamaCare’s opponents have overwhelmingly succeeded in convincing society of the law’s drawbacks, it is not at all clear that society is ready to accept a more free-market alternative reform.
Indeed, some of the approaches used against ObamaCare might have unintended consequences that will appear in 2014, the law’s first fully operational year, which would make repealing and replacing ObamaCare extremely difficult.
Here are a few friendly questions for ObamaCare’s opponents:
First: We’ve spend a lot of effort convincing people that state-based health-insurance exchanges will be a disaster, and succeeded in blocking their establishment in many states. To be sure, they are an unnecessary bureaucracy, but do we really believe that enrolling in the New York Health Benefits Exchange or Cover California will be the worst thing since unsliced bread? It won’t be like shopping on Amazon.com, but I’ll bet it will be easier than doing business with the DMV. The New York Times recently reported on exchange outreach efforts in Colorado (a pro-ObamaCare state) and Missouri (an anti-ObamaCare state). The take-away: In Colorado, it’s almost impossible for people to avoid learning how to enroll in the exchange, while in Missouri it’s been extremely difficult to get information. Most people will not be interested in how much it cost taxpayers to set up and operate the exchanges. Do we really believe that when ordinary Missourians learn from their Coloradan friends that their state government has helped them get federal tax credits for health insurance, that they will reward Show-Me state politicians for trying to block them?
It’s one thing to lead by example and quite another to be made an example of. The executive leaders of Penn State University, who have managed to generate quite enough terrible publicity over the past couple of years, have now gone boldly where no employer has gone before. By implementing a coercive, intrusive, and wasteful “wellness” program during the academic year’s summer doldrums and miscalculating that it would go unnoticed, they have invited the wrath of their own faculty.
The PSU wellness initiative like so many before it relies on the hydra of preventive medical care, which is both clinically and fiscally ineffective; a personally intrusive health risk appraisal; and, a whopping incentive/penalty of up to $1,200 per year if you don’t play ball, which is double the national average. Penn State faculty, led by political science professor Matthew Woessner of their Harrisburg campus, have responded with outrage and a petition for withdrawal of the program, which now has 1,500 digital signatures. Penn State’s HR team, led by VP Susan Basso, has doubled down on its own ignorance claiming that the opposition is “unfortunate and sad.” What’s unfortunate and sad is that employees of a college can’t do math or read .
Penn State faculty are right to oppose the wellness program on both ethical grounds and economic grounds. Their creativity on how affected faculty and staff should respond is applause-worthy. Entering bogus data on the HRAs (both legal and harmless to employees because HRAs are anonymous) and refusing to get any of the preventive care recommended are useful guerilla steps. They are also discussing a blanket refusal to participate, which means either everyone gets hit with the penalty or no one does.
The official reason given by the Administration for delaying, by one year, the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that employers with more than 50 full-time workers provide insurance coverage or face fines, is that employers need more time to implement it. The unofficial reason has more to do with the Republicans’ incessant efforts to bulldoze the law.
Soon after the GOP lost its fight against Obamacare in Congress, it began warring against the new legislation in the courts, rounding up and backstopping litigants all the way up to the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, House Republicans have refused to appropriate enough funds to implement the Act, and have held a continuing series of votes to repeal it. Republican-led states have also done what they can to undermine Obamacare, refusing to set up their own health exchanges, and turning down federal money to expand Medicaid.
The GOP’s gleeful reaction to the announced delay confirms Republicans will make repeal a campaign issue in the 2014 midterm elections, which probably contributed to the White House decision to postpone the employer mandate until after the midterms. “The fact remains that Obamacare needs to be repealed,” said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, on hearing news of the delay.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics came out with its June jobs report this week and, consistent with usual trends, healthcare jobs are booming. In June 2013 there were approximately 20,000 new healthcare jobs in the U.S., ¾ of which were in the ambulatory care sector and ¼ of which were in hospitals. Healthcare jobs represented 10% of all new jobs created this month.
The June growth in healthcare jobs matches up to the average 19,000 new healthcare jobs we have seen created in each of the prior months of 2013 and the 12% job growth we have seen over the last five years. In a country where new jobs are viewed as even better than baseball, apple pie and mom herself, these new jobs should elicit a huge round of applause, or at least a stadium style wave, right?
Or should they?
Change the channel and a different set of policy makers, employers and industry experts will tell you that the only way to save our economy from ruin is to cut healthcare costs. Cutting healthcare costs means making the people who work within the system vastly more efficient, eliminating unnecessary medical care (and thus reducing the labor that goes along with it), and helping empower consumers to do things for themselves, including taking a more active role in reducing their own demand for healthcare services and, in some cases, doing at home what they might previously have used the healthcare system to do (e.g., diagnostics, home care, etc).
The administration suddenly announced last night that the requirement that all employers with 50 or more workers offer health insurance has been delayed until 2015.
If an employer with 50 or more workers did not provide health insurance to their full time workers in 2014, they would have been subject to a fine of $2,000 per worker. The employer would have also been subject to a $3,000 fine for each worker that went to the insurance exchanges if the employer package was not affordable.
Why did the administration delay the large employer mandate?
Because many employers have been in the early stages of planning to cut back the hours of workers in order to avoid having to offer insurance to those customarily considered part time, those who work at least the 30 hours per week the law established for defining a full time worker––and they haven’t been bashful in telling their employees why. In addition, there has been growing evidence that some employers were holding back on hiring in order to avoid more of the mandate costs at a time of high unemployment.
While the administration cited employer administration issues with mandate reporting as the reason for the delay, the bottom line is that the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) was looking like it was about to be successfully labeled a job killer and the administration wanted to avoid that.
You also have to wonder if all of the reporting challenges were just with employers or was the administration also having trouble with the complex employer mandate information systems they will ultimately have to build?
In his “Are Employers to Blame for Our High Medical Prices?,” David Dranove takes issue with my statement in a New York Times blog post:
“One reason for the employers’ passivity in paying health care bills may be that they know, or should know, that the fringe benefits they purchase for their employees ultimately come out of the employees’ total pay package. In a sense, employers behave like pickpockets who take from their employees’ wallets and with the money lifted purchase goodies for their employees.”
“The correct economic argument is a bit more nuanced. Employees do not care about the cost of their benefits; they care about the benefits. If an employer can procure the same benefits at a lower cost, the employer need not increase wages one iota. In this regard, there is nothing special about health benefits. Suppose an employer offers employees the use of company cars. Workers don’t care what the employer paid for the cars, and if the employer can purchase cars at a deep discount, it will pocket the savings.”
So far I can buy the nuance. It is something we could theorize about.
But then David he notes that:
“Employers may have an incentive to reduce benefits costs yet they are passive purchasers. With a few exceptions, nearly every American corporation outsources its healthcare benefits to insurers and ASO providers and then looks the other was as the medical bills pile up. Sure, they complain about the high cost of medical care, but they don’t take direct action by aggressively shopping for lower provider prices. Doesn’t this passivity demonstrate a lack of interest? No more so than the fact that auto makers do not aggressively shop the lowest rubber or silica prices implies that they are disinterested in the costs of tires and windows. Auto makers outsource the production of tires and windows (and most other inputs) and let the Michelins and PPGs of the world worry about rubber and silica prices. By the same token, American companies outsource the production of insurance and let the Blues and Uniteds of the world worry about provider prices. This is entirely appropriate.”
Forgive me if by now I am lost. Do we really believe that modern corporations, whose management and board of directors agonize even over an extra penny of earnings per share (EPS) – believe me, I know whereof I speak – simply outsource the procurement of major inputs and then look the other way?
They do seem to do it in health care – which is the puzzle – but they surely do not in connection with other important inputs where smart buying can add pennies to EPS.
I welcome Leah Binder’s earlier post on this blog, written in response to my blog post in The New York Times. To be thus acknowledged is an honor.
As an economist, I am not trained to respond to Ms. Binder’s deep insights into my psyche, dubious though it may be. Nor, alas, can I delve into hers, fascinating though that might be. Let me therefore concentrate instead just on substance.
First of all, I do not recall calling employers “stupid,” nor did I question their IQ. I do confess to having once called employee benefits managers, when addressing them at some of their usually mournful meetings, “kind-hearted social workers dressed to look like tough Republicans.” At that meeting I contrasted how carefully their company’s tough-minded VP for Procurement, Murgatroid de B. Coverly III, Princeton ’74, purchased paper clips for the company with the much more mellow approach taken by their V.P. of Human Resources to purchase health care for their company’s employees.
Benefit managers – I hate to call them BMs — really are the nicest folks. They care deeply about their employees’ well being (until, of course, the latter lose their job with the company). They worry incessantly about their company’s ever rising outlays for health insurance. And, after a cocktail or two, they regularly lament how rarely they get the attention of top management and of the board of directors – the very folks I once told to go look into a mirror in their search for the culprit behind rising health care costs.
No, when I say “employers” I really mean top management and boards of directors who make the rules. And I did not even call those mighty ones stupid, but merely “passive payers” as did, by the way, David Dranove on this blog in his critical response to my New York Times piece. Why these usually tough and smart people have behaved so passively in buying health care for themselves and their employees remains a puzzle at the level of economic theory.
Uwe Reinhardt is one of the nation’s most respected health care economists, professor at the prestigious Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton, fellow of the Institute of Medicine, and one of the shining lights in health policymaking circles.
But alas, even the best and the brightest are wrong sometimes. Case in point: Reinhardt’s recent comments in the New York Times on the role of the American business community in fueling our nation’s health care problems. To paraphrase, Reinhardt believes that employer purchasers of health care are 1) dim bulbs and 2) responsible for the escalating costs of care.
This seemed puzzling coming from Reinhardt, whose views are widely respected by purchasers. But I was able to diagnose the problem by drawing on insights from social psychology.
Social psychology investigates “attribution,” our mind’s process for inferring the causes of events or behaviors. It’s how we describe why things happen — to us or to someone else. It turns out, we humans aren’t very accurate in our attribution processes because all of us suffer from at least one of the following problems. In his New York Times piece, poor Professor Reinhardt appears afflicted by all three at the same time. Let’s take a closer look at each:
1. Actor-Observer Bias: This is the notion that when it comes to explaining our own behavior, we tend to blame external forces more often than our own personal characteristics.
Reinhardt is rightfully troubled by a decade of escalating health care cost growth under employment-based health insurance. But seized by Actor-Observer Bias, Reinhardt blames this problem not on the world of health care that he played such an influential role in over the past few decades, but on external forces, the employers who purchase health care.