Empowering Consumers

So this week’s question from the Washington Post RX Blog was:

In the Baucus bill, insurers would pay a tax on the value above $8,000 for an individual policy and $21,000 for a family plan.What do you think of Sen. Baucus' proposal to impose a 35 percent tax on "Cadillac" health insurance plans?

My response is below.

We should have faith in consumers to make the right choices for their health -- only then will we reduce costs, expand coverage and drive value.

The motivation driving this tax is that health insurance plans (Cadillac or not) are another form of compensation -- something your employer provides for you with pre-tax dollars versus your paying yourself with after-tax dollars. The employer's ability to use pre-tax dollars creates a misalignment. Rather than tax a small percent of plans, it would seem better to correct the core problem. Until consumersare educated and empowered about how their health-care dollars-- both pre-tax and post-tax -- are spent, real reform won't happen.

One of the big snags in reform conversations is the idea that employment and health insurance are inextricably linked. Health insurance should be portable so that it can be taken from one job to the next and will cover you when you're temporarily unemployed. Labor mobility is one of the underlying strengths of the U.S. economic system, and health benefits connected to employment unnecessarily weakens labor mobility.

Moreover, the concept of health insurance should be more focused on 'major medical' needs like other insurance where you pay into a system to prepare for a catastrophe. But the norm of the current system is first dollar coverage which pays for every routine procedure. The fact that employers can use pre-tax dollars and ostensibly provide greater benefits for each dollar spent has led to this situation. This has driven up total health costs through misaligned incentives, extra administrative costs and limited provider innovation (e.g. packaging of services to meet routine needs). If there were a consumer-driven market, consumers would understand how their dollars are spent and there would be a more innovative insurance market.

The Wyden-Bennett Act provides this foundation. Consumers would receive cash from their employers equivalent to what the employer spends on health insurance. They'd have the option to buy the insurance they considered most appropriate, based upon need and determined by behaviors, through a health insurance exchange, which would be regulated by the government and encourage insurers to compete for their business.

Consumers make health choices every day, so why shouldn't they decide the coverage they need and the amount they will pay for it? People don't need the government to help them pick their car insurance.

Let's give people the right information to make the right decisions.