By Chris Jacobs
Sometimes, liberals and conservatives agree on a policy problem, but disagree strongly on the best solutions to that problem. Our health insurance system presents one case of such a disconnect between problems and solutions.
In the last Democratic presidential debate, hosted by CNN in March, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders said that the coronavirus pandemic made the “dysfunctionality of the current health care system … obviously apparent.” He elaborated in an April op-ed in Politico, in which he noted that “already, an estimated 9.2 million workers have lost their employer-sponsored insurance, and as many as 35 million people might lose coverage by the end of the crisis.”
Sanders makes a valid point: The pandemic does illustrate the shortcomings of our system of health coverage. But his single-payer health care plan — or even Joe Biden’s proposal for a (purportedly) voluntary government-run “option” in which individuals could enroll — would take the system in the exact opposite direction.
The dysfunctionality of the system exists largely because employers control most Americans’ health insurance. Most conservatives would therefore support letting individuals control their health coverage, rather than liberals’ plan to replace employer control with government control. Thankfully, the Trump administration has moved health policy in that exact direction, laying the groundwork for a movement toward more personalized insurance options.
The Problem: employer-provided health insurance
Sanders cited a study from Health Management Associates stating that as many as 35 million individuals could lose access to employer-sponsored insurance due to coronavirus-related layoffs. A revised paper, released in late May, did not specifically update estimates for the number of people losing employer insurance, but still showed significant coverage losses. Other estimates have indicated similarly large numbers of Americans losing their employer coverage.
The sudden job losses sparked by coronavirus lockdowns have illustrated one of the three major problems with employer-provided health insurance. Individually and collectively, these flaws have represented a problem hidden in plain sight for decades.
Lack of choice: The largest survey of employer-provided health insurance found that in 2019, exactly three-quarters of firms (75%) offered only one type of health insurance plan. In general, large firms offer more choices than small businesses, but even among the largest firms — those with more than 5,000 workers.
Because the employer and not the employee owns the insurance policy, workers often end up stuck with whatever plan their employer chooses. An individual who doesn’t want to enroll in an HMO, or whose doctors lie outside his or her employer’s provider network, might have few choices but to switch jobs or accept a plan that does not meet his or her needs.
In its first season, the U.S. version of “The Office” satirized this dynamic, when resident megalomaniac Dwight Schrute got charged with picking the office health plan — and let the power go to his head. While Americans don’t have to worry about contracting “Count Choculitis,” one of the fictitious diseases Schrute’s co-workers invented to needle him in the episode, they do face the very real worry that their employer’s choices and wishes regarding health care might not align with their own.
Flawed incentives: A conversation with one of my friends several years ago illustrated this problem. My friend said he loved the insurance plan his employer provided: “I can go to the doctor and it only costs me a $5 co-pay.”
I posed a thought experiment: What if your health insurance suddenly became taxable, and you had to pay $1,500 or so in taxes on that coverage? (At the time, a top-of-the-line plan cost about $6,000 for an individual, and I assumed a 25% state and local tax rate.) He responded immediately: “I wouldn’t want the plan — I would tell them to raise my co-pays and deductibles.”
That response illustrates the policy problem of employer-sponsored insurance: Everyone thinks they’re spending everyone else’s money. Employees don’t pay taxes on employer coverage; an IRS ruling during World War II, later codified by Congress, exempts employer-provided benefits from both income and payroll taxes.
All the incentives regarding employer-provided health care point in the wrong direction. Exempting employer coverage from taxation encourages individuals to take more compensation in untaxed health insurance benefits rather than taxable wages. Many employees don’t even realize that the employer’s share of the contribution for their coverage — which averaged nearly $15,000 for a family policy in 2019 — comes out of their own wallets in the form of lost wages.
All the flawed and misaligned incentives mean that the co-pay of “only” $5 my friend talked about years ago costs far more than that — to workers, employers and the economy as a whole. It’s one major reason why our health care system represents such a large, and rising, share of our economy.
Lack of portability: This issue arises because employers and not individuals own their health plans. As a result, when individuals lose their jobs, they also lose their health coverage. That dynamic results in the double whammy Americans have experienced during the pandemic, when workers lose their coverage at the same time they have unexpectedly lost their job — compounding families’ financial distress.
Lack of portability also exacerbates the problem of pre-existing conditions. Upon entering the workforce in their teens or 20s, most individuals have yet to develop a pre-existing condition like cancer or diabetes. But every time individuals switch jobs, they lose their employer-provided health coverage — making them vulnerable if they have developed a condition in the intervening time.
The worst kinds of situations occur when individuals must leave their jobs because they have become too sick to work. These patients face not one but two potential sources of financial ruin: They have lost their source of income, and face the prospect of astronomical medical bills without a means to fund them.
Cure the disease, not the symptoms
In the past several years, Democrats have spent lots of time talking about the need to protect individuals with pre-existing conditions. But in focusing on pre-existing conditions, the left focuses on the symptom, rather than the underlying problem.
Remember: When Obamacare went into effect in January 2014, at least 4.7 million individuals received cancellation notices, according to The Associated Press. These individuals had plans that they liked, and wanted to keep — but the Obama administration wouldn’t let them. Politifact called the promise that Americans could keep their plan the 2013 “Lie of the Year,” and that lie affected many individuals who had developed, or feared that they would develop, a pre-existing condition. Let’s spare the notion that Democrats want to “protect” people with pre-existing conditions, when they “protected” millions of people right out of their coverage.
Liberals don’t talk about the underlying policy issue that creates the pre-existing condition problem — that people don’t own their own health coverage — because they don’t want people to own their own insurance. They want Washington to control health care decisions, not individual patients. It’s the classic example of former President Ronald Reagan’s nine most terrifying words in the English language: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”
But if individuals could buy an insurance policy upon joining the workforce — one that they owned, not their employer — and retain that policy from job to job for decades, most individuals could buy coverage well before they develop a pre-existing condition, and keep that coverage after they do so, the pre-existing condition problem would rapidly diminish. (Yes, a small percentage of Americans, most notably those born with congenital illnesses, develop pre-existing conditions very early in life, but other policy solutions can address this population.)
Trump administration’s solution
You wouldn’t know it, given all the carping and hostility from the left, but the Trump administration has put forward a very positive solution that answers the policy problems associated with employer-provided health coverage. It should increase portability in ways that help solve the pre-existing condition problem, while also providing additional choice and competition.
The administration’s policy, implemented through regulations finalized in 2019, allows employers to contribute funds to workers on a pre-tax basis through Health Reimbursement Arrangements. These HRAs allow individuals to purchase coverage that they own, not their employers — making the coverage portable from job to job.
The HRA concept provides wins for employers, employees and the economy as a whole:
• Employers get predictability when it comes to their health insurance offerings. By providing employees a fixed sum (say, $300 or $500 a month) into the HRA, they will not have to worry about changing plans from year to year, a sudden spike in costs because of a sick employee, or many of the other paperwork hassles associated with offering coverage.
• Employees get both choice and portability. They can select the insurance plan that best meets their needs — the doctors, deductibles and plan features that they want. Not only can they keep the plan when they switch jobs, the fact that they and not their employer chose the coverage in the first place will make them more likely to do so.
• The economy will benefit from individuals selecting the plans they want, rather than the plans employers select for them. Insurers will have to provide better, more customized plans that fit individuals’ needs, and employees will have incentives to make better choices to stretch the HRA dollars their employers provide them.
Ideally, Congress would amend the law regarding Health Savings Accounts, to allow individuals to use HSA dollars to fund health insurance premiums. Because HSA funds cannot pay insurance premiums in most cases under current law, the Trump administration had to use Health Reimbursement Arrangements (which are owned by employers) rather than Health Savings Accounts (which are always owned by individuals) to fund individual coverage.
Providing contributions via an HSA, as opposed to an HRA, would allow employees to control any unused employer contributions upon leaving a job. That way, individuals would not only have a source of coverage in the event of a layoff, they could develop a source of savings to pay for that coverage while unemployed. But until Congress acts, the Trump administration’s Health Reimbursement Arrangement regulations represent a tremendous step forward toward a more logical, patient-centered insurance system.
Empower patients, not government
Coronavirus has made the problems with government control of health care apparent. As Joe Biden (of all people) noted in the March CNN debate, Italy has a single-payer system — and that nation had to ration access to ventilators, whereas the United States did not.
The pandemic has exposed the flaws in our health insurance system. But it comes just as the Trump administration has shown a better path forward. By empowering patients rather than government bureaucrats, Health Reimbursement Arrangements can help transform the coverage system into something that lowers costs and provides the care American patients prefer.
Chris Jacobs is the founder and CEO of Juniper Research Group, and author of the book “The Case Against Single Payer.” He is on Twitter: @chrisjacobsHC.
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