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Using the IRS to Tame Healthcare Costs

As I approach the eve of receiving results from our 19th annual Iowa Employer Benefits Study©, a survey that was on sabbatical in 2017 to accommodate our Iowa Patient Safety Study©, I am waiting in great anticipation as to the status of employer benefits in Iowa after this one-year hiatus.

From this latest study, we will be learning quite a bit regarding many key components found in health and dental insurance, life and disability coverages, retirement, and a multitude of paid-time off components that are extremely important to employees.

But as in previous studies, I will be highly focused on health insurance components, such as premiums, employee contributions and out-of-pockets expenditures. As we are all painfully aware, the cost of health insurance, although experiencing relative tepid growth in the past few years, continues to outpace inflationary costs. In May, the Milliman Medical Index was released showing that, on a national average for 2018, the total cost of insurance for a family of four exceeded $28,000 (it was $23,215 in 2014). As we know, the rising cost of health insurance and medical care alters purchasing behaviors – rational or not.

A recent commentary written in the Wall Street Journal, “The IRS Can Save American Health Care,” by Regina Herzlinger (professor at Harvard Business School) and Joel Klein (chief policy and strategy office at Oscar Health) piqued my interest. Now it must be noted that Dr. Herzlinger is a huge proponent of “consumer-driven healthcare,” while Oscar Health is a technology-focused health insurance company that primarily focuses on individuals purchasing health coverage through designated state marketplaces. Oscar would presumably benefit greatly from what these authors have proposed.

The Existing Problem

Thanks to a 2017 Kaiser Family Foundation report, the authors make a point that eight percent of employers offer a choice of tighter provider networks for their employees to use. Tighter networks restrict the number of providers that can be covered in a geographical location, but in return, providers concede on price, making the plans’ cost more competitive. By abdicating the important choice to exclude higher-cost providers, the authors argue that large hospitals that are dominant in local markets are able to charge higher prices without facing much backlash.

Employers benefit from using pretax dollars when they purchase insurance on behalf of employees, who understandably, are unsure about the true cost of health insurance as this tax exemption greatly distorts and conceals this cost. As a result, employees are likely to believe that someone else is paying the majority of the cost and may not feel as compelled to discern the charges they rack up. If employees work for employers who don’t offer health insurance, they can buy policies on their own through the individual markets, however, they will not benefit from the same tax breaks allowed to employers.

According to the authors, it is who pays for the coverage that ultimately impacts healthcare costs.

Proposed Approach to Put Employees in Charge of Health Costs

Herzlinger and Klein are advocating the IRS to adjust its technical definition of Health Reimbursement Arrangements (HRAs) so that they can be used to pay insurance premiums to satisfy the ObamaCare employer mandate. How could this happen? Employers would simply fund a fixed amount of money into each employees’ HRA, and then have the employee buy the best health plan for their families in ACA-exchanges. Employees would now have tax-free money to purchase health insurance, and if any money is left after the purchase, they can pocket the savings as taxable income. This provides an economic incentive to employees to become thrifty with their money.

The thought process is that employees would now have the appropriate tax break to induce buying cheaper, more-tailored policies – rather than receive a standard plan offered by their employer. The theory is that having more workers purchase coverage through the individual marketplaces would “drive down premiums.” Workers may be more inclined to select a scaled-down provider network that would have fewer providers, but in return, the insurer would be empowered to negotiate lower prices with hospitals and physicians. Such activity would eventually break the stronghold that dominant health providers have in their markets. A 2017 McKinsey analysis suggests that tighter provider networks can be at least 18 percent cheaper (and still achieve similar outcomes).

With this IRS adjustment, the authors feel the Department of Health and Human Services – and Treasury – could work with states and employers on offering HRAs to employees. There would be no act required by Congress to make this happen, bypassing the common gridlock found in Washington.

Will This Be Successful?

This approach is simple in concept and may have some merit of pushing workers to become better healthcare ‘consumers.’ However, expecting a new insurance approach – even through different tax advantages – to overcome the myriad of twisted, inefficient, and opaque incentives that mold how providers and other stakeholders behave is, I’m afraid, mere wishful thinking.

I do consider myself to be an advocate of ‘market-driven’ forces to make healthcare more efficient, safe and affordable, however, it will take a carefully-crafted menagerie of both public-private approaches to ‘tame’ this beast and eventually alleviate runaway health costs.

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