In the past week or so, the media—at least those outlets that still cover health reform somewhat regularly—offered up some reasonable journalism about Beltway health reform politics. There was just one problem: ordinary people outside the Beltway may have needed help understanding what it all meant. Stories tackled one part of the health reform story or another, but didn’t put it all together. A piece or two connecting all the dots would have come in handy.
A couple of weeks back, The Washington Post ran an illuminating story—one that Campaign Desk has long been urging the press to write—about Congress’s willingness to tax the value of employer-provided health insurance. Millions of workers who get insurance from their employers would have to pay income taxes on all or some of those benefits—a tax increase by any stretch of the phrase. Possibly some of those increases would be destined to fund insurance premiums for the uninsured.
Recall that, during the campaign, John McCain advocated such a tax, but Candidate Obama said in no uncertain terms that he opposed the idea. The Post reported that budget director Peter Orszag has said that taxing benefits “most firmly should remain on the table.” The paper noted that the Democrat-controlled Congress dismissed the idea when President Bush had proposed it. But now, according to the Post, some congressional Dems are signaling that Obama would now “accept a tax on employer benefits as long as he didn’t have to propose it himself.”
“It’s funny how this idea, so sharply attacked by Obama and the Democrats during the campaign, is somehow now considered perfectly appropriate with no discussion at all about the consequences,” Charles Idelson, communications director for the California Nurses Association, told me. One rationale for taxing benefits is to discourage employers from offering rich benefit packages to workers, which leads to the use of more medical services. Using more health care fuels inflation, some economists believe. About 25 million Americans are currently underinsured—a number that would certainly rise if workers get skimpier benefits that require them to pay a lot out-of-pocket. Here’s a good place to start connecting the dots.
Then last week the Los Angeles Times ran a similar story adding a few new voices to reflect the latest Congressional and advocacy group think. Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow said that while she didn’t want to penalize middle-income people who have good health care, she might nevertheless support what the paper called an income-based cap—aka a tax on employer-provided benefits. That’s a bit of jargon that every auto worker left in Detroit instantly understands, right? Len Nichols from the New America Foundation offered this: “Unless someone can write a really big check, there really is no other source of money that we can tap.”
That was the money quote that got my attention. What happened to Obama’s budget proposal of a $634 billion down payment that was to be funded in part by making wealthier people pay higher income taxes? Or the $175 billion that was to be saved by cutting the excess payments to Medicare Advantage plans over ten years? Ezra Klein’s blog gave a clue. The Senate draft budget doesn’t contain any actual money for health care. Instead, said Klein, there will be “space” for a health reform reserve fund. No taxing the rich—members of Congress beat up on that one. No trimming Medicare Advantage plans—insurers don’t like that.
The $634 billion figure was always too small to provide all the subsidies people will need if they are required to buy health insurance, which seems to be the direction the pols are going. But if Obama’s revenue source doesn’t survive the budget process, then where does the money come from? A savvy, interested reader might have to circle back to The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. Bingo! The money might just come from taxing the health insurance benefits of some of Debbie Stabenow’s auto workers—and everyone else who gets insurance from their boss.