By Casey B. Mulligan
The future of employer-provided health insurance is better considered together with the future of total employee compensation, both cash and fringe benefits like health insurance. From that perspective, the likelihood that most employers will continue to offer health insurance is not necessarily good news for employees.
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, President Obama’s initiative, offers large health-insurance subsidies to the majority of the population beginning in 2014, but only if their employer does not offer affordable insurance. The subsidies are frequently much larger than the subsidies coming through the tax exclusion of employer-provided health insurance.
Some economists are predicting that eligible employees, especially those in line for the largest subsidies, will prefer employers who do not offer affordable insurance. As a result, they say, many more employers will not offer insurance.
Others have different expectations, pointing out that employers dropping insurance will pay penalties and throw away the tax exclusion for their employees who are not subsidy-eligible (typically the ones who earn more). Moreover, perhaps because people are comfortable with their existing coverage even if it is not subsidized, employer coverage did not decline in Massachusetts when it began a similar plan (by my estimate, only 5 percent of the people in Massachusetts who could get subsidized individual-market insurance actually receive it, largely because they have coverage through the employer of the head of the household or that person’s spouse). Note that Massachusetts has lower subsidies and a narrower eligible population than the Affordable Care Act and lower employer penalties for dropping coverage.
How many employers will drop their coverage when the new health care law gets under way? The answer makes for a nice headline, but that’s the wrong question. Would it be so bad if many employers dropped their coverage but replaced it with huge cash raises? Or would it be so good if every employer continued to offer coverage but required employees to take big pay cuts?
All sides agree that some otherwise subsidy-eligible employees will work for employers that keep their coverage, and other subsidy-eligible employees will work for employers that drop it. Market forces must be considered, because some employees will be moving between these two types of employers.
Low-income employees will ultimately cost less to employers without coverage (or without “affordable” coverage; the important issue is that their low-income employees are subsidy-eligible) than they cost to employers with coverage. If they didn’t, low-income employees would be better off at employers without coverage and would line up to work there. Meanwhile, the employers with coverage would find it more difficult to retain and attract low-income employees. That situation defies supply and demand.
Another way to see the same result: by getting low-income employees at lesser cost, employers without coverage can, without going out of business, compete aggressively for the high-income employees who are considering positions that offer coverage.
By the same logic, high-income employees will cost more to employers without coverage than they do to employers with coverage. Thus, high-income employees will lose one way or another — either they will lose their tax exclusion because their employer eliminates coverage or they will see their cash compensation fall below what it would have been without the Affordable Care Act.
At the same time, the low-income employees will enjoy the subsidy either way: either their employer drops coverage, in which case they receive the subsidy directly, or their employer increases their compensation above what it would be without the Affordable Care Act to attract them from the employers without coverage. Tax economists will recognize this as the Harberger model applied to the Affordable Care Act; international economists will recognize it as the Heckscher-Ohlin model.)
The same sorts of market competition will ultimately prevent most employers from dropping their coverage and thereby incurring the penalties. Employers keeping coverage will raise the pay of subsidy-eligible employees and get by with fewer of them. Those who remain will typically not want to leave for no-coverage employers because doing so would cut their pay. The same employers will hire a few more high-income employees at lesser pay, because for those employees, the alternative is a no-coverage employer.