Critics of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) need an alternative vision. What follows is a short explanation of the core ideas posted at the Congressional Health Care Caucus and developed in greater detail in the book Priceless: Curing the Healthcare Crisis.
Tax Fairness: Families at the same income level should get the same help from government when they obtain private health insurance, regardless of where they obtain it. The federal government encourages the purchase of private health insurance through the tax system. Yet the current approach is arbitrary, regressive and unfair. Instead of paying taxable wages, employers are able to purchase health insurance for their employees with untaxed dollars. These employer-paid premiums avoid federal income taxes, federal payroll taxes (FICA), and state and local income taxes as well. This “subsidy” is worth almost half the cost of the insurance for a middle income family. Yet the same family receives virtually no tax relief if it purchases the insurance on its own.
Because of the way we subsidize private health insurance, the higher the family’s tax bracket, the greater the subsidy. A family earning $100,000 gets six times as much tax relief as a family earning $25,000. We are giving the most encouragement to those who need it least.
As an alternative, we should replace the current system of tax and spending subsidies with a system that offers everyone a uniform, fixed-dollar tax credit for the purchase of health insurance. The credit would be refundable, so that it would be available even to those with no tax liability. A reasonable goal, for example, would be a credit of $2,500 per adult and $8,000 for a family of four.
Universality: Unclaimed tax relief should be made available to local safety net institutions to be used in case the uninsured cannot pay their own medical bills. If an individual chooses to be uninsured, the unclaimed tax credit should be sent to a safety net agency in the community where the person lives. These funds would provide a source of finance in case the uninsured are unable to pay their medical bills.
Under this approach, the government pledges a fixed sum of money for every individual and money follows people. If everyone in Dallas County opts to obtain private insurance, there would be no need to fund a safety net and all the government’s support would be in the form of tax credits for health insurance premiums. On the other hand, if everyone in Dallas County opts to be uninsured, all the unclaimed tax credits would go to safety net institutions in Dallas.
This is an easy reform to implement, even if peoples’ insurance status changes often over the course of a year. All the federal government needs to know is how many people live in each community. If the tax credits claimed on income tax returns fall short of their potential for the community as a whole, the balance would be provided in the form of a block grant to be spent at the local level.
Someone once showed me an analysis that demonstrated that the sum of workers’ salaries and benefits has stayed remarkably constant in real terms over the last two decades. This means that companies have compensated for the increasing cost of health insurance over time by holding back on wage increases.
You can understand this. After all, if companies are not able to increase the price of goods and services they sell to the public, they need to hold factor costs relatively constant. So if it was costing them more and more to provide health insurance to their workers, an offsetting amount would have to be removed from possible wage increases.
This dynamic is still in place, but it is showing up in a different way, by shifting costs to workers in the form of higher deductible health insurance policies. Deductibles are different from co-pays, where you plunk down $15 or $20 for each appointment or prescription. With deductibles, you pay the first costs incurred as you and your family make use of the health care system, the entire cost of the office visit or of the prescription, until a preset amount is reached. After that level is reached, you still pay the co-pays. A recent story in the Washington Post documented this trend.
Currently, this kind of high-deductible policy is often combined with health saving accounts that are funded by the employer. These accounts let patients buy medical services and drugs with pretax dollars. So, although your insurance plan might require you to pay more of a deductible out of your own money, you could still use the HSA to cover those out-of-pocket expenses.
New York Times reporter Abby Goodnough’s piece last week about the health insurance exchange in Massachusetts is instructive—especially since other states are trying to set up their own versions of these shopping bazaars where the uninsured can buy coverage if the health reform law eventually takes effect. For the last three years we have been suggesting there’s an untold story in the Bay State about how the law is working, so we were glad to see Goodnough’s reporting and offer a tip of the hat.
Goodnough gets into the subject with a success story: the tale of Peter Kim, who lost his employer-sponsored health insurance in 2005 when he opted for a career as an independent consultant. He found that shopping for insurance in the open market was a complicated affair, and that most plans were too expensive. He eventually chose coverage for catastrophic illness.
Then he discovered his state’s health insurance exchange, called the Connector. After just an hour of research, he found a plan with a monthly premium of only $1,086, a better deal than the coverage he previously had. And ideally, that’s how exchanges should work, Goodnough said.
The trouble, she reports, is that so far the Connector has not drawn enough full-paying customers like Peter Kim.
As Goodnough notes, the exchanges have drawn little journalistic scrutiny so far, despite their key place in health reform. (And, we note, despite the fact that they grew out of initiatives backed by former Massachusetts governor and current presidential candidate Mitt Romney.)
As the Supreme Court debates the boundaries of government’s role in mandating the purchase of insurance, the discussion continues on whether the public or private sector is best positioned to drive market reforms necessary to meet our goals of lower costs and higher quality. As the son of a Phi Beta Kappa neo con who believes government should be the size of a sand gnat and as the husband to a British citizen who loves national healthcare and was born through a midwife, I often find myself lost in a political no man’s land with volleys being exchanged from the right and left. To complicate Thanksgiving dinner further, thirty years of healthcare consulting, including a three-year stint in Europe, hospitalization for pneumonia in the NHS and a tour of duty as a senior executive for a national insurer has left me with my own conflicted convictions about how we might fix our broken system.
On the eve of the Supreme Court determining the fate of PPACA, strong opinions are in full bloom like cherry blossoms along the Mall. In his particularly sharp remarks to government attorneys, Justice Kennedy, considered a swing vote by many, cautioned that Congressional intervention to mandate citizens the “duty ( to buy coverage) to act “ was a slippery slope that sets dangerous precedent and impinges on individual rights. Justice Roberts added, “And here the government is saying that the Federal Government has a duty to tell the individual citizen that it must act … That changes the relationship of the Federal Government to the individual in the very fundamental way.”
Justice Scalia was quick to wade in after Justice Roberts questioning, ” what would be next in the role of the government dictating to its citizens ( if the mandate were to be upheld). “I will tell you the next something else (we will next tell Americans to do) is exercise, because we know that lack exercise contributes to illness.” It seems that this debate is indeed creating odd bedfellows as civil liberties advocates are joining conservatives in warning that the next thing the government will be telling people is that they cannot drink sugary soft drinks or that they have to eat broccoli. It is hard to find a time when a conservative Justice and the ACLU share a common opinion about anything.
During the debate two years ago over the health care law—which I called an historic mistake because it expanded a health care delivery system we already knew was too expensive, instead of taking steps to reduce its cost two years ago—I suggested to our colleagues on the other side of the aisle who were supporting it that, if they voted for it, they ought to be sentenced to go home and run for governor and see whether they could implement it over an eight-year period.
Governors have long wrestled with the rising costs of Medicaid, paid for partly by the states according to rules set in Washington, and the question of how to deal with public education, especially higher education. Some 30 years ago, when I was a young governor, I was still struggling with the fact that at the end of the budget process, we had money either to put into higher education or into Medicaid – but the rules from Washington said it had to go to Medicaid.
I remember going to see President Reagan and asking: ‘Why don’t we just swap it, Mr. President? Let the federal government take all of Medicaid. Let the states take elementary and secondary education.’ That didn’t happen, and gradually, the increasing Washington-directed costs have distorted state budgets so much that now 24 percent of the state budgets go to the Medicaid program.
Because of the health care law, we are going to add 25.9 million more Americans to Medicaid, according to the Medicaid Chief Actuary.
Our former governor, Governor Bredesen, a Democratic governor, estimated that between 2014 and 2019 the expansion of Medicaid would add $1.1 billion in new costs to the state of Tennessee.
Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court heard six hours of oral arguments for and against the constitutionality of the new health care law. As a small business owner, I am not a constitutional scholar, but I can definitively say this: the Affordable Care Act is cutting my health care costs and helping my business.
My wife and I run an auto repair shop in Columbia, MD. We started as a small, family-business in 1978. Now, we’re a well-respected business with 19 employees, a long string of awards and a reputation for service.
One of the biggest barriers to growing a successful business has been the rising cost of health insurance. We’re committed to offering insurance coverage, but over the past 10 years it has become a real struggle to keep up with the costs.
We’ve become accustomed to rates going up 10 percent to 20 percent each year (sometimes even more), and we’ve had to look at many different ways to deal with the extra expense. We’ve got a great agent who does a lot of research and works hard to find the best options for us. But in the end, we’re the ones who have to decide what to do — and foot the bill.
Many opponents of Obamacare claim that large employers will drop employee health coverage in droves. The Wall Street Journal has made this argument a centerpiece of its opposition to the health exchanges. The argument has some face validity – employers that drop coverage can save about $10,000 per employee in insurance costs but only have to pay fines of $2000 per employee. What employer would not want to save $8000 per employee?
Supporters of Obamacare argue that if employers do not pay for insurance, they will have to increase wages. This will temper the incentives of employers to drop coverage. This follows from a classic model in labor economics that says that employers have to give workers a competitive wage/benefits bundle, and that the mix of wages and benefits is largely fungible. Thus, if benefits fall by $10,000, wages will increase by about the same amount. The theory is well accepted.
While it has been difficult to construct empirical tests of this theory, the available evidence is largely supportive (though the evidence of 1:1 fungibility is less compelling than the evidence of some degree of fungibility.) This may explain why the Congressional Budget Office predicts that only a few million workers will lose their employer sponsored coverage and get pushed onto the exchange. Even so, the Wall Street Journal and others have dismissed this theory and evidence, arguing that employers who drop coverage will pocket the full savings and therefore than tens of millions of workers will be affected.
I want to propose a simple test of the naysayers’ position. The test relies on evidence that the Wall Street Journal and others should find unimpeachable –stock market valuations. This is a quick and dirty test but the results are so compelling that I think it is sufficient.
Next week the U.S. Supreme Court will hear 6-1/2 hours of oral arguments concerning the challenges to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA). This is the most time the high Court has devoted to oral arguments since the 1966 challenge to the Voting Rights Act. Virtually all attention has been on the central question – whether Congress exceeded its Constitutional authority by requiring virtually all Americans to obtain health coverage. Yet, that is only one of four questions the Court will consider. The other three have received scant attention. And the answer to one of them could have far-ranging consequences for millions of Americans whose coverage is provided by their employers.
The threshold question is a procedural one: whether it is premature for the Court to even consider the case since the PPACA tax/penalty for not obtaining health coverage will not be imposed until 2015, when Americans who fail to obtain coverage in the previous year file their income tax returns. Another question invokes the Constitution’s “Spending Clause” to determine if the Federal funds available to pay for PPACA’s expansion of Medicaid impermissibly coerces – rather than just encourages – the States to comply with the Medicaid provisions. Unexpected decisions on either of these two questions are “wild cards” that could leave the viability of the law in doubt.
The question receiving greatest media scrutiny is whether the Constitution’s “Commerce Clause,” from which Congress derives authority to regulate interstate activity, allows the federal government to require Americans to purchase health coverage. In essence, is declining to obtain health insurance (even though one will still presumably obtain health services) “activity” or “inactivity?”
What makes the contraception coverage debate currently raging in Washington unusually problematic is that both sides are exactly right. Female employees who receive part of their cash compensation in the form of health benefits have the right to benefits that include FDA-approved birth control methods. Employers defined by their religious values—not just churches, synagogues, and mosques, but also thousands of hospitals, universities, and charities—should not have to compromise those values with their own money, and the government has no right to trample the First Amendment by compelling them to do so. The Obama administration’s “accommodation” —shifting the new federal requirement to the insurers who administer those organizations’ health plans—is a cynical shell game that ignores the most basic tenets of business accounting.
As the problem is no more complicated than two sets of equally valid rights in direct opposition, neither is the solution all that complicated, at least in principle: employment and health insurance should have nothing to do with each other.
Unfortunately, this arrangement—a relic of the World War II civilian wage freeze and enshrined in the tax code as soon as workers got a taste of this new-fangled “fringe benefit” of employment—is now an enduring part of the U.S. healthcare system. The entanglement of our health insurance with our employment goes a long way toward explaining not just today’s conundrum over the birth control coverage mandate, but myriad other economic distortions, market dysfunctions, and cultural conflicts that define much of what is wrong with the U.S. healthcare system.
The Obama administration’s ‘accommodation’ last week is a cynical shell game that ignores the most basic tenets of business accounting.
Having cost the Republican Party a Congressional seat earlier this year with his plan to turn Medicare into a voucher program, House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan is back with an even more sweeping health care proposal.
Ryan’s latest offering, unveiled in a speech a week ago at Stanford University’s conservative Hoover Institution, is nothing less than a blueprint for replacing the Affordable Care Act with a consumer-driven model that would eliminate the current tax-exempt treatment of employer-paid health insurance.
Is Ryan right? Or wrong?
Ryan believes that exempting health care benefits from employee income tax leads to insurance choices that are unnecessarily costly (since they are effectively subsidized), insufficiently tailored to employee needs (since few choices are offered), inadequately valued (since the employee isn’t paying), and unreasonably tie employees to their jobs (since they may not be able to move without switching insurance). He also believes the present system is unfair: higher-paid employees get a greater tax advantage, while employees of smaller businesses have fewer (or no) options at higher prices than their peers in larger corporations.
He’s right! Common sense says that people are likely to choose the most generous coverage available if it is free or offered at a very low price, while employers—especially those who must negotiate union contracts—see tax-subsidized health insurance as a “better buy” than salary payments.