COBRA, competition, Cross Subsidies, Employer Coverage, Future Insurability Coverage, health care costs, High-Risk Pools, Individual Coverage, Insurability, John Cochrane, Medicaid, Obamacare, Portability, Tax Deductibility, Wage controls
Health insurance in the U.S. suffers from many dysfunctions, but a couple of basic steps in its institutional evolution lie at the root of its worst shortcomings. I say this after coming across another great post by John Cochrane the other day, this time with some of his thoughts on fashioning an Obamacare replacement. He lays out a few basic principles, one of which is that “health insurance is not a payment plan for small expenses“, or shouldn’t be.
The best parts of Cochrane’s post, I think, relate to two longstanding features of the health insurance market in the U.S.:
“The original sin of American health insurance is the tax deduction for employer-provided group plans — but not, to this day, for employer contributions to portable individual insurance. ‘Insurance’ then became a payment plan, to maximize the tax deduction, and then horrendously inefficient as people were no longer spending their own money.
Worse, nobody who hopes to get a job with benefits then buys long-term individual insurance. This provision alone pretty much created the preexisting conditions problem.”
The last two sentences are insightful commentary on the inadequacy of coverage for pre-existing conditions, though “creating the pre-existing conditions problem” should probably read “foreclosed any easy solution to the pre-existing conditions problem“. During World War II, the government authorized the tax deduction for employer-provided health plans as a concession to labor interests frustrated by war-time wage controls. Cochrane should be forgiven for making this sound like a deal with the devil. Today, employer-provided coverage is almost always limited to one’s job tenure (plus 18 months under COBRA, since 1985). In the 1940s, the benefits might have been generous, but portability was probably the last thing on their minds, especially in light of the long job tenures of the day and the fact that many employers, at that time, offered coverage to vested retirees. The dominance of employer-provided coverage after WW-II pretty much ruled out lifetime insurability in a world with relatively high job mobility.
The tax deduction also helped to institutionalize the faulty notion that “good” health insurance should cover a panoply of services involving small, recurring expenses that are properly considered normal health upkeep. Instead, insurance should cover large, unexpected expenses for services necessary to treat injuries or severe illness. In addition, the coverage and the premium should, at the buyer’s option, include a guarantee of future insurability at standard rates. This option should not be mandated, but a refusal to opt-in must come at the risk of potentially large future health care obligations.
Cochrane also says:
“Cross-subsidies are a second original sin. Our government doesn’t like taxing and spending on budget where we can see it. So it forces others to pay: It forces employers to provide health insurance. It forces hospitals to provide free care. It low-balls Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement.
The big problem: These patches and cross-subsidies cannot stand competition. Yet without supply competition, costs increase, the number of people needing subsidized care rises, and around we go.”
Competition and choice must exist in health care delivery and in the health insurance market to keep costs under control. But if person A is an identifiable health risk and person B is not, and if healthy B is forced to pay the same premium for health coverage as sickly A, then A is cross-subsidized by B. Competition will encourage B to bail out of the risk pool. If B is prohibited from doing so, costs will soar because the cross-subsidies create incentives for A to over-utilize services, even making allowance for A’s greater need. Thus, forcing A and B into the same risk pool ultimately exacerbates the plight of both A and B by raising costs. That’s where we find ourselves today.
Enabling competition and dismantling cross-subsidies can only occur if all consumers are able to purchase not just health insurance, but long-term health insurability. To avoid a painful transition, publicly-funded high-risk pools might be necessary for the existing type As of the world, who are already burdened by poor health and might not be able to afford the premium necessary for insurance. Going forward, those who refuse a future-insurability option must understand that if they fail to opt-in prior to developing a serious health condition, they will have to rely on Medicaid, private charity, or a risk-rated policy, if they can afford it.
Will Republicans abolish the ill-founded tax deduction? Almost certainly not. They are likely to extend it to the individual side of the market, despite the fact that this will have an additional inflating impact on health care costs. At least it will reduce the current advantage of employer-paid coverage, potentially broadening the market faced by individuals. Also, Republicans might take steps to restore choice, promote competition, and eliminate cross-subsidies. As Cochrane notes, there are also ideas in play to improve portability. Questions remain about many of the details, however, including Medicaid reforms. On the whole, I’m hopeful that we’ll see most of Obamacare’s short-sighted provisions and rules rolled back and replaced by legislation to encourage the development of the market for insurance coverage and for future insurability.