Sometimes, even heated discussions on Twitter can bring both light and heat by illuminating policy discussions. On Wednesday evening, Elizabeth Bruenig wrote a since-deleted tweet, using her transition from a writing position at the Washington Post to one at The New York Times to argue for single-payer health-care system:
I responded with a lengthy thread explaining that Bruenig had a variety of options during her brief gap in employer-based coverage—at which point Twitter outrage ensued. Commenters said I was picking on a young mother struggling to care for her children, or inadvertently made a compelling argument in favor of single payer. “Hillbilly Elegy” author J.D. Vance thought I had taken at best an inelegant tone:
I am skeptical of M4A for a host of reasons, but “a mother of two young kids shouldn’t complain about thousands of dollars of penalties for switching jobs” is how conservatives lose the health care debate. https://t.co/MoaBXlV7mx
— J.D. Vance (@JDVance1) January 30, 2020
Vance made a compelling point on policy, but one that conflated two issues. I wholeheartedly agree with his position on wanting to make coverage portable. But I don’t believe that a movement to de-link health coverage from employment means the government should pay for the health costs of comparatively affluent individuals.
Need for Portability
In her tweet, Bruenig admitted her period of uninsurance came from switching jobs. As a mother of two, including a newborn, Bruenig quite likely—and understandably—arranged some time between her two positions to spend with her young children.
On that front, I agree with both Bruenig and Vance about the good policy reasons to move away from individuals obtaining health coverage from their employers. As I outlined in prior writings, much of the problem of pre-existing conditions comes from our employer-based health insurance system: When you lose your job, you lose your coverage, which causes understandable worry for employees who have pre-existing conditions.
Making health coverage portable would allow individuals to take their insurance from job to job. This change would eliminate the friction people like Bruenig face when they’re between jobs, and greatly reduce (but not eliminate) the problem of pre-existing conditions, because people who develop such conditions during their working careers would own their own coverage, purchased before they became ill. The Trump administration has taken big strides on that front, publishing a regulation that will allow individuals—not their employers—to select and own their own health coverage, while still receiving an employer subsidy to cover some or all of the cost of their premiums.
However, people on the left talk about making health coverage portable not by giving power to individuals but by giving power to government. To borrow a medical metaphor, most liberals and socialists focus on the symptom (pre-existing conditions) rather than the underlying disease (lack of portable insurance). They favor either government regulation regarding pre-existing conditions, which encourages people to wait until they become sick to buy insurance, or in Bruenig’s case, an entirely government-run system.
Affordability for Individuals—And Taxpayers
While I agree with both Bruenig and Vance on the need to improve coverage portability (even if I disagree with the former on the way to go about it), I disagree in this instance about the separate question of who should pay for those costs.
I can see how some might have taken my blunt comment that the cost of Bruenig’s potential gap coverage might cost “a few grand” at most as glib, smarmy, condescending, or all of the above. To a struggling mom making minimum wage, or a factory worker on the graveyard shift, a few thousand dollars represents wages for a month (or even more than a month).
But context matters, and in this case, the context looks quite different. Bruenig’s husband Matt also works; a former attorney for the National Labor Relations Board, he heads the People’s Policy Project, a socialist think-tank. As a result, their family has a second source of income, and another source of employer-based health insurance. (While Bruenig referenced health bills for her children, she didn’t say that her children faced an insurance gap. Given that context, I assume, but do not know for certain, that her husband’s insurance covers her children.)
Consider also the most recent breakdown of IRS tax filing data by income. As of 2017, households with adjusted gross income exceeding $97,870 represented the top quintile (i.e., top 20 percent) of filers, and households with adjusted gross income exceeding $145,135 represented the top 10 percent of filers. Bruenig and her husband almost certainly exceed the threshold to put themselves in the top 20 percent, and quite possibly the top 10 percent as well. Do I believe someone with that kind of income should receive government assistance for health insurance costs? In a word, no.
I haven’t yet completed my tax returns for 2019, but based on my paperwork compiled to date, I expect to declare just over $100,000 in income from my business last year. Of course, because I run my own business, I have to pay my own health insurance premiums. And my age (I’m roughly ten years older than Bruenig) means I pay more in premiums for Obamacare exchange coverage than she would if she bought temporary insurance there—and I do it month after month, not just when I have a gap between jobs.
I explain my own situation not to brag, or to ask for a subsidy. Even in a high-cost area like Washington, I can afford to live comfortably (albeit not extravagantly) on my income. I don’t think someone as relatively affluent as I merits a government subsidy for my insurance costs. To the extent that I took a blunt tone in my thread, it stemmed from my inability to comprehend someone in a similarly affluent position asking for just those types of subsidies.
In short, the Twitter mob calling me an “elite” for my tone and comments about savings ignore the fact that, based upon their station in life, Bruenig and her husband qualify on that front too. Unlike them, however, I don’t believe the federal government has a place subsidizing my insurance costs.
A Question of Priorities
I’ll give the last word to a Democrat: Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer. As I mentioned in my book, in 2009, Hoyer, then as now the House majority leader, took to the House floor to make this compelling statement about entitlement spending and federal priorities:
At some point in time, my friends, we have to buck up our courage and our judgement and say, if we take care of everybody, we won’t be able to take care of those who need us most. That’s my concern. If we take care of everybody, irrespective of their ability to pay for themselves, the Ross Perots of America, frankly, the Steny Hoyers of America, then we will not be able to take care of those most in need in America. [Emphasis added.]
I agree with both Vance and Bruenig on the need to make health coverage more portable. But on the separate question of who pays, and saving scarce taxpayer resources for those who need them most, I stand with Hoyer.