Monday, October 25, 2010

qotd: The Bredesen-Gruber dispute represents much more than a math problem

The Wall Street Journal
October 21, 2010
ObamaCare's Incentive to Drop Insurance
By Philip Bredesen

Our federal deficit is already at unsustainable levels, and most Americans understand that we can ill afford another entitlement program that adds substantially to it. But our recent health reform has created a situation where there are strong economic incentives for employers to drop health coverage altogether. The consequence will be to drive many more people than projected — and with them, much greater cost — into the reform's federally subsidized system. This will happen because the subsidies that become available to people purchasing insurance through exchanges are extraordinarily attractive.

The authors of health reform primarily targeted the uninsured and those now buying expensive individual policies. But there's a very large third group that can also enter and that may have been grossly underestimated: the 170 million Americans who currently have employer-sponsored group insurance. Because of the magnitude of the new subsidies created by Congress, the economics become compelling for many employers to simply drop coverage and help their employees obtain replacement coverage through an exchange.

(Bredesen provides calculations that allegedly demonstrate that the Tennessee government could adjust the compensation of their employees so that they would not lose by purchasing their plans in the exchange, and the cost to the state would be significantly less - a savings to the state of $146 million.)

Our thought experiment shows how the economics of dropping existing coverage is about to become very attractive to many employers, both public and private. By 2014, there will be a mini-industry of consultants knocking on employers' doors to explain the new opportunity. And in the years after 2014, the economics just keep getting better.

(Mr. Bredesen, a Democrat, is the governor of Tennessee.)


The New Republic
October 21, 2010
A Health Reform Critic Flunks Math
By Jonathan Gruber

Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen takes to the Wall Street Journal editorial page on Thursday to attack health care reform.

The gist of Bredesen's argument is pretty simple: Some firms will find it more attractive to stop offering insurance and let employees get coverage through the new insurance exchanges, where generous subsidies will be available. But the Affordable Care Act, which I've long supported, imposes strong penalties on firms that do not offer insurance, as well as sizeable tax credits for smaller firms that encourage them to offer. And in most firms, the majority of employees will make too much money to be eligible for large subsidies anyway. It is for this reason that the Congressional Budget Office estimated that PPACA will reduce employer sponsored insurance in the U.S. by only about 2.5 percent by 2019. In other words, the effect on employer sponsored coverage will likely be small.

First of all, Tennessee state employees generally make too much money to get big subsidies through the exchanges. Forty percent have incomes higher than 400 percent of the poverty lines, which means they'd be eligible for no tax credits at all; even for those with incomes below that level, the average tax credit would offset just a third of their premium cost. Second, if these individuals lost their public employee insurance and went into the exchanges, they would want to receive the same very generous benefits they get now – coverage comparable to the platinum plans offered in the exchange. Working from CBO's estimate of the cost of less generous plans in the exchange in 2016, those plans would cost about $6650 for an individual and $17,400 for a family in 2014.

Using the Governor's estimates of 40,000 state employees, and accounting for the low subsidization and high cost of the very generous benefits they would need to get in the exchange, I estimate that it would cost state employees about $425 million out of their own pockets to replicate in the exchange what they get today from the state.

(Gruber provides calculations that allegedly refute Bredesen's contention that the state could save money by shifting employees to the exchange - rather the cost to the state would increase by about $230 million.)

Bredesen ignores one other important point: Employer-sponsored insurance in the U.S. is already eroding, on its own. The share of individuals with employer-sponsored coverage has declined by almost 15 percent over the past decade. These individuals have to turn to a broken and dysfunctional non-group market, resulting in higher premiums, growing rates of uninsurance, and increased medical bankruptcy. These are exactly the individuals who will be assisted by the market reforms and tax credits put in place by Affordable Care Act.

(Jonathan Gruber is a professor of economics at MIT and member of the Massachusetts Health Connector Authority Board. He has served as a paid technical consultant to the Department of Health and Human Services and continues to advise policymakers about health care reform.)


The Washington Post
October 24, 2010
Employers looking at health insurance options
By Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar

The new health care law wasn't supposed to undercut employer plans that have provided most people in the U.S. with coverage for generations.

"I don't think you are going to hear anybody publicly say 'We've made a decision to drop insurance,' " said Paul Keckley, executive director of the Deloitte Center for Health Solutions. "What we are hearing in our meetings is, 'We don't want to be the first one to drop benefits, but we would be the fast second.' We are hearing that a lot." Deloitte is a major accounting and consulting firm.

Two provisions in the new law are leading companies to look at their plans in a different light.

One is a hefty tax on high-cost health insurance aimed at the most generous coverage. Although the "Cadillac tax" doesn't hit until 2018, companies may have to disclose their exposure to investors well before that. Karen Forte, a Boeing spokeswoman, said concerns about the tax were partly behind a 50 percent increase in insurance deductibles the company just announced.

Bigger questions loom over the new insurance markets that will be set up under the law.

They're called exchanges, and every state will have one in a few years. Consumers will be able to shop for coverage among a range of plans in the exchange. To help make premiums affordable, the law provides tax credits for households making up to four times the federal poverty level, about $88,000 for a family of four.

(Tennessee Gov. Philip) Bredesen said last week that employers could save big money by dropping their health plans and sending workers to buy coverage in the exchange. They'd face a fine of $2,000 per worker, but that's still way less than the cost of providing health insurance. Employers could even afford to give workers a raise and still come out ahead, Bredesen wrote in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece.

Employers are actively looking at that. "I don't know if the intent was to find an exit strategy for providing benefits, but the bill as written provides the mechanism," said Deloitte's Keckley, the consultant.

Another wrinkle: the health insurance tax credits available through the law are keyed to relatively Spartan insurance plans, not as generous as most big employers provide. Send your workers into the insurance exchange, and valuable employees might jump to a competitor that still offers health care.

MIT economist Jon Gruber says it's impossible to create new government benefits without some unintended consequences, but he doesn't see a big drop in employer coverage.

Comment:  The disputed math of the incentives for employers to either continue offering their employees health plans or to drop the plans in favor of employees purchasing their own plans in the exchanges is an important question because it determines whether employers will continue to contribute to the premiums or if the taxpayers will assume that burden through subsidies for the exchange plans. What is not so obvious is that, in the background, there are two much more important policy considerations.

What will happen if employees continue to receive employer-sponsored coverage? Or what will happen if employees end up receiving their plans through the state exchanges?

We already know what is happening with employer-sponsored coverage. Jonathan Gruber points out that this coverage has already declined by 15 percent in the past decade. Industry surveys indicate that employers want out. As Paul Keckley of Deloitte says, many employers want to be a "fast second" to drop their coverage after one major employer leads the way.

In the meantime, employers are shifting more of the costs for care to their employees in order to slow the rate of increase in the employers' component of the premium paid. As Karen Forte of Boeing said, they also increased their deductibles partly to postpone the imposition of the hefty "Cadillac tax" on plans based on the premium paid. With health care costs continuing to escalate, this tax soon will be assessed on average plans, providing further motivation for employers to dump their programs.

What coverage can we anticipate in the exchanges? Gruber says that employees will want the platinum plans in the exchanges that are comparable to the more traditional employer-sponsored plans, but is that what they would get? Because the extra cost of the platinum plans would be paid in full by the employee, it is much more likely that they would select the relatively Spartan bronze and silver insurance plans for which the subsidies are targeted. These are UNDER-insurance plans with inadequate subsidies which inevitably will cause financial hardship for those actually in need of health care.

Though the question of whether financing will be through employer-provided benefits or through taxpayer subsidies for the exchanges is an important question, it dodges the real issue: Will the workforce continue to forgo wage increases to receive plans from their employers - plans with diminishing actuarial value (under-insurance), or will employers finally jettison their plans, turning their employees over to exchanges to purchase low actuarial value bronze or silver plans (since only the wealthy will be able to afford the gold or platinum plans).

Whether we should use employer-provided benefit funds or taxpayer funds is an easy question. It is far more equitable and efficient to use the tax system to finance health care. For employers, it would be much better for them to pay their equitable share in taxes than to continue struggling with the management and expenses of their health benefit programs.

Whether we should adopt policies that favor employer-sponsored plans versus exchange plans isn't a question that we should be asking at all. In either instance we would perpetuate the wasteful, inefficient, and grossly inadequate financing system with which we are now burdened. Mandating under-insurance for everyone, except the wealthy, is a terribly flawed policy.

What we need instead is first-dollar coverage of all necessary health care for everyone - a single payer national health program - an improved Medicare for all. Now that we can all afford.

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