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.
Oct. 1, 2013 is a focus of increasing anxiety in this country. That’s the date when enrollments begin for the federally run health insurance exchanges, created under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). No one really knows what to expect, but it could be far worse than advertised —and for a reason that has more to do with the federal deficit than health care.
What’s anticipated is unsettling enough. President Obama speaks of inevitable “glitches and bumps” in the implementation. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) sees the possibility of “a huge train wreck” if the public isn’t adequately educated and prepared. Supporters of the ACA, especially Democrats in the Congress, are nervous about taking the blame if the exchanges don’t unfold as intended.
All these worries are legitimate. The American people, already burdened by a numbingly complex, inefficient and inequitable tax system, now wonder if an increasingly government-run health care system will follow suit. Many are concerned that some employers will dump their current health care plans and pay the relatively modest fine. There’s also worry that young people will opt out of the exchanges (preferring to pay the small penalty), leaving the exchanges with a disproportionately older and sicker pool. Then there’s the very real uncertainty surrounding the ACA’s ultimate cost — illustrated by the impact of Medicare alone, which the Office of the Chief Actuary of Medicare estimates could cost cost $10 trillion more than claimed.
Amid all these concerns and speculations, almost no attention is being paid to the opportunity that the ACA’s insurance exchanges could represent for state and local governments’ retiree health care programs. It’s time to think about it because the consequences could be far-reaching.
States in a deep hole
We already know that many state and local governments are in a financial hole that keeps getting deeper. A newly released report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) makes clear that, absent significant reforms, the fiscal picture for most state and local governments will steadily worsen through 2060. A main cause, in addition to Medicaid, is the cost of health care for state and local government retirees. These largely unfunded obligations are similar to the pressures on the federal government to fulfill its unrealistic Medicare promises.