Decision Decisions

By Paul Fronstin, EBRI

ImageMost employers find that while they would like to continue providing health benefits to employees and their dependents, longer-term cost trends are unsustainable.  Those trends, combined with the forthcoming decision by the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) on the constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) (in whole or in part – notably the individual mandate), and uncertainty related to the future of health care delivery and financing in the United States are causing many employers to start to rethink their role as a provider of health coverage in the workplace.

While there is a possibility that the entire law could be declared unconstitutional, most of the controversy surrounding the PPACA has involved the law’s requirement that individuals either purchase insurance or pay a penalty, the so-called “individual mandate.”  There are basically four ways1 in which SCOTUS might rule on the constitutionality of this provision in the PPACA:

  1. Rule that the individual mandate is constitutional and let implementation of the law proceed;
  2. Rule that the individual mandate is unconstitutional, but that the individual mandate is severable and therefore implementation is allowed to proceed with all other parts of the PPACA;
  3. Rule that the individual mandate is unconstitutional but severable from the remainder of the law, but discards other connected parts of the PPACA, such as guaranteed issue and community rating;
  4. Rule that the individual mandate is unconstitutional, and that the individual mandate is not severable from the PPACA, therefore the entire PPACA is found to be unconstitutional.

As of this writing, only the justices know the decision, but speculation (and odds making) is occurring on a daily basis.  It is unlikely that the court would strike down the individual mandate and discard other connected parts (option 3 above), because it does not have the equivalent of “line-item” veto power of laws passed by Congress.  If the ruling finds the mandate severable from the rest of the law (option 2 above), Congress will inevitably try to fix the PPACA, but it is impossible to predict what the fix may look like given the current political climate and the potential for political gridlock regardless of the outcome of the next election.  If the court rules that the law is unconstitutional (or that the individual mandate is, and is inseparable from the rest of the law, necessitating its rejection), the status quo of the past will return, but with a potential nightmare scenario where the parts of the PPACA that have already been implemented would need to be  “unimplemented” (such as funding provided to the states to establish exchanges, or the deductibility of health care coverage offered to the newly created category of adult dependents under the PPACA that would ostensibly now be subject to taxation), potentially triggering numerous lawsuits and additional political ill will.

While health care reform discussions that ultimately led to the passage of the PPACA started out as discussions regarding system reform that would result in lower health care costs, they quickly morphed into discussions about coverage that largely ignored the overall cost of health care services and health insurance coverage.  Thus, regardless of the outcome of the Supreme Court decision, or the fall elections, health care costs are expected to continue to increase in the future.

What Will Employers Do?

If employers go down the current road they are on and stay with the status quo, we will likely continue to see cost-shifting to workers and the introduction of and experimentation with carrots and sticks in order to change the health behaviors of workers and their dependents.

However, were employers to decide to move away from traditional employment-based health coverage, there are a number of alternative approaches they might consider:

1) De-link health coverage from work.  Employers might endorse a system where they have absolutely no connection to health coverage.  Some have proposed a single-payer system, and others have proposed a purely individual market; there are precedents for both.  Medicare began as the equivalent of a single-payer system for health coverage for seniors but has since evolved into a hybrid public-private partnership, as private plans are an alternative for Medicare beneficiaries.  The private-plan part of Medicare could be expanded to move away from the predominant single-payer-system aspect of Medicare to one that looks more like an individual market (such as that contemplated in the proposal put forth by Congressman Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin)). Under a single-payer system alternative to the current employment-based system, employers would no longer provide coverage.  Instead, either the federal government or the states would provide coverage, with financing provided through some type of tax.  Alternatively, a purely individual market might look very much like the exchanges contained in the PPACA, with subsidies for low-income workers, or a voucher-type system (also as proposed by Congressman Ryan for Medicare).  Financing for either would come from some type of tax system as well.

2)  Re-define the link between health coverage and work.  Employers have been interested in the concept of “defined contribution” for years as a way to provide health coverage to workers.  While there is no one way in which to define such a concept, presumably it would work in a way in which employers are able to better control or “define” their contribution towards health coverage.  Under that scenario, public exchanges as described in the PPACA could be the vehicle through which workers would get their coverage, with employers either paying some kind of coverage charge (such as the $2,000 penalty included in the PPACA), or the employer may itself seek to make coverage arrangements through third-party private exchanges. Such a system may or may not produce short-term cost savings to employers, depending on individual specifics of how employers transition to such a system, but could provide long-term savings if employer contributions do not rise as fast as premiums would otherwise have grown, or if premium growth is flat (due to the more market-driven system). In such a system, employers would no longer be involved in decisions regarding the design of health care.  Rather, they would simply provide the funding mechanism for workers to purchase health coverage through a party separate from the employer.  Employers have shown interest in this concept in the past through position papers published by the CED  and the ERISA Industry Committee as recently as 2007.  Moving towards these private exchanges would not require a change in law, regardless of the SCOTUS decision, and would be permitted under current law unless prohibited by a future Congress.

After three+-plus years of contentious debate and the challenges associated with understanding and attempting to comply with the new law, it seems that employers are at a crossroads: try to continue with the current employment-based system of health coverage, or undertake to try to fundamentally redefine the system that the United States has essentially lived with since World War II.

It is unlikely that employers will simply take the fork when they come to it in the road.

Notes:

1. There is, of course, also the possibility that SCOTUS will remand the issue of severability back to the lower court, tying up the PPACA in court for a longer period of time, creating more uncertainty, but basically leaving things in play for the time being.

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President and CEO, EBRI

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