Is Taxing Health Care Coverage on the Way?

Ideas percolate through the political process in interesting ways: editorials in authoritative publications, important speeches, and more recently, blogs.

For example, the Director of the Congressional Budget Office maintains a blog and it includes an entire section concerning “Health.” The CBO will have a great deal of influence on the health care reform debate. They will provide the benchmark analysis of whatever plans emerge. What they’re thinking matters and, presumably, what their Director is thinking is what the agency is thinking.

For example, former CBO Director, Peter Orzag, now the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, have long warned of the need to reign in health care costs. According to Jonathan Cohn, writing in the New Republic, Mr. Orzag was one of those within the Obama Administration pushing hard for addressing health care reform now, as opposed to later. Clearly what the budget folks think matter. To gain an insight into Mr. Orzag’s thinking, the CBO Director’s Blog is a good start.

The same holds true for the thinking of the CBO’s new director, Douglas Elmendorf. Consider his recent post concerning reigning in medical care costs. In it he notes that “a substantial share of our national spending on health care contributes little if anything to overall health.”  He calls for providing incentives to control costs and sharing of information concerning the effectiveness of treatment. Then he makes an interesting comment: “… the current unlimited tax exclusion for employment-based health insurance dampens incentives for costs control. Those incentives could be changed by restructuring the tax exclusion in ways that would encourage workers to join health plans with higher cost-sharing requirements and tighter management of benefits.”

This opens up a host of interesting worm-filled cans. During the presidential campaign, Republican Senator John McCain called for taxing the value of health care coverage (along with offsetting tax credits). The Democratic nominee, now President Barack Obama castigated the idea, calling it the biggest tax increase on the middle class in history. However, many in Congress of both parties are reviving the idea. OMB Director Orzag has indicated that all ideas, even taxing the value of health care coverage, needs to be on the table. Few other comments on the topic have been forthcoming from the Administration, but realistically, paying for the cost of universal coverage will require at least a strong look at this revenue option.

On the surface, this makes a lot of sense. The current system is regressive, meaning it is a better deal for the wealthy than for lower income Americans. The higher your tax bracket and the richer your benefits, the better the current system works for you. For example, a CEO earning $500,000 a year, paying an effective tax rate of 40 percent (state and local) and receiving health insurance benefits worth $10,000 per year. If the coverage was taxed, our hypothetical CEO would pay $4,000 in taxes. Instead, she gets a “gift” from the tax code of this amount. Working for this CEO is a clerk, earning $40,000 per year and paying 15 percent in taxes with the same coverage. If the value of health insurance was taxed the employee would pay $1,500 in taxes — his gift is less than half of the CEO’s.

You might think Democrats would be jumping all over this loophole. After all, they’re the party of progressive taxes. Instead, those few who are willing to raise the issue are demonstrating real political courage. Because unions, who contributed millions of dollars and armies of foot soldiers into the election of a Democratic Congress and President, are adamantly opposed to taxing benefits.

For decades, unions have negotiated rich health care benefits for their members in lieu of salary increases. Their members valued the coverage, which was received tax free. It was a reasonable trade-off for employers — they can deduct the cost of health insurance just as easily as they deduct the cost of salaries. Changing the rules of the game would, in essence, punish union members for doing what economists say everyone should do: pursue economic self-interest based on the rules of the game.

There are ways to mitigate the pain unions will feel if health insurance is taxed. As Mr. Elmendorf notes, the tax rules can be modified rather than eliminated so as to encourage consumers to choose cost effective plans. Or the value of union negotiated health benefits could be exempted from the tax for a transitional period, allowing unions and employers to negotiate new contracts under the new rules.

Health care reform is going to be expensive — covering all Americans will cost over $1 trillion. We’re already spending large sums to salvage the tattered economy (and, apparently, to enrich the AIG traders who helped get us into this mess). Yes, the government can print the dollars it needs, but that leads to another problem which goes by the name of  inflation.

If health care reform is going to be enacted in the next 12-to-18 months, which I think it will, the money for reform will need to be identified. My guess is taxing health care coverage will be one of those sources. It won’t be a straight repeal of the current exemption, it may be offset with subsidies and credits, some coverage may be grandfathered for awhile, but the tax is coming. 

Meaningful health care reform will change a lot of the rules we’re used to. This is just one of them.