Those seeking to understand why the United States faces out-of-control health-care costs need look no further than this week’s congressional agenda. On Wednesday, the House of Representatives will likely vote on legislation to repeal Obamacare’s “Cadillac tax” on high-cost health plans, a provision Congress has already delayed repeatedly.
Most economists agree that reforming the tax treatment of health insurance represents one key way to slow the growth of health-care costs. Yet neither party wants to take the courageous decisions required to do just that — even when, in this case, the “action” involved merely requires allowing a legislative provision already enacted to take effect.
The Conservative Approach to Controlling Costs
Controlling health costs involves making tough choices. To a certain extent, delivery system reforms can lower costs by providing better care, reducing costs by keeping people healthier.
But from a conservative perspective, controlling health care costs in a broader sense involves getting incentives right. Reforming incentives can involve injecting more competition into the health care system — for instance, by improving generic drugs faster to help bring down prices. But it also requires reforms that encourage people to serve as smarter consumers of health care.
Health costs continue to skyrocket, in large part because individuals love to spend other people’s money. Few people can afford to pay for all their health care, such as major surgeries, out-of-pocket. Funding more care through third-party payments — a majority of Americans consume most of their health care through an insurer, and many insurers are chosen by an employer — increases spending.
The tax code exacerbates the third-party payment problem by allowing employers to provide health insurance to their workers on a tax-free basis. Economists agree that this tax preference encourages people to use more expensive health insurance than they need, and thus more health care than they need.
Why Do Conservatives Oppose a Conservative Reform?
Obamacare created the “Cadillac tax” to limit the tax preference extended to employer-provided insurance. It would impose a 40 percent surcharge on employer-sponsored plans that exceed a limit for “high-cost” insurance.
However, the law used a clumsy approach to imposing this tax, on two levels. First, it applied the same 40 percent rate to all employer-provided policies, regardless of whether the particular affected workers came from a high-tax bracket, such as corporate CEOs, or a low-tax bracket, such as office janitors. Second, it imposed the tax as part of an overall package of revenue increases used to fund Obamacare.
Nonetheless, the “Cadillac tax” represents an important measure to control health care costs. Because Congress included this provision as part of Obamacare, Republicans could easily allow the measure to take effect while disclaiming responsibility for having enacted it. After all, everyone knows Obamacare passed with only Democratic votes.
Yet Republicans have spent the better part of the past decade trying to repeal this measure, without enacting a similar or better replacement that could control health care costs. Moreover, the House will apparently vote on the repeal this week without a full Congressional Budget Office score showing the sizable fiscal impact of that action.
While repealing the “Cadillac tax” does amount to a measure of tax relief on the American people, if you believe Congress will turn around and lower its spending to offset these revenue reductions, you haven’t seen the numerous articles talking about Congress’ bipartisan desire to increase federal spending even further.
Liberals’ Approach To Controlling Health Costs
Conservatives might not think a battle over the “Cadillac tax” is worth fighting. President Barack Obama’s attack ads from 2008 showed that “taxing health benefits” can prove incredibly politically powerful. (All the more ironic since the Obama White House insisted on including the “Cadillac tax” as part of Obamacare.)
But after watching the Democratic debates last month, conservatives should know that liberals have an “easy solution” to controlling health care costs: price controls, greater regulations, and more government control. After all, Sen. Bernie Sanders’ single-payer legislation exists in no small part to extend Medicare’s price controls over health care goods and services to all Americans, rather than just seniors.
If conservatives cannot support and implement changes that reform the incentives in the health care system, including reasonable limits on the tax treatment of employer-provided health coverage, they may end up bringing about the liberal alternative. And sooner than they think.