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More on a business case for universal health care

A Business Case for Universal Healthcare: Improving Economic Growth and Reducing Unemployment by Providing Access for All

By David Sterret, Ashley Bender, David Palmer
American University, Health Law & Policy Brief, Spring 2014

From the Introduction

This report will illustrate that the United States economy is currently hampered in numerous ways by having an inefficient, inequitable healthcare system. The research on which we relied was completed before the full implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA). However, we expect that even if the law works as intended, it will not resolve the problems that we raise because the law largely preserves our employment-based healthcare system. In Part I, we discuss specific harms to the economy inflicted by our system’s reliance on employers to provide healthcare benefits. Part II examines how the United States economy compares through the lens of several indices, including some published by conservatives. These comparisons illustrate that most countries with more vibrant economies than the United States have government- directed, universal healthcare systems.

II. Implementing a Universal Care System Would Improve American Competitiveness Internationally

A. The United States Trails Many of Its Competitors by Various Economic Measures
B. How the Employer-Funded United States Healthcare System Harms Businesses
C. Why a Universal Care System Would Lessen Burdens on Businesses

No universal care systems, including pure single-payer systems, are a free lunch for businesses. In one way or another, often through a payroll tax, businesses end up providing at least some of the money to finance the system.

There are several reasons to believe that a universal care system would mitigate this impact on businesses. Primarily, such a system would cause future costs to be lower, or at least stem the trend of cost-increases far exceeding inflation. Secondly, businesses’ overall share of healthcare bills would likely be lower. Finally, a universal care system would distribute costs far more equitably among businesses.

Conclusion

If the United States were to implement a system to ensure universal care, American companies would no longer face a disadvantage in competing with businesses from countries, such as Canada, that provide national healthcare systems. Additionally, healthcare would cease to be a large factor guiding individuals’ career decisions. A national, universal care system would level the playing field among domestic businesses, and eradicate the free-rider problem. For all of the above reasons, economic growth would likely improve, which would yield additional self-perpetuating benefits.

There is an argument that the taxes to finance such a system would constrain business. This claim is seriously undercut by examples from around the world. For instance, Hong Kong, viewed by many as a “beacon of capitalism,” has universal healthcare. So does Denmark, which has higher levels of entrepreneurship than the United States. What is becoming increasingly clear now is that the current employer-sponsored healthcare system in the United States does hurt business.

http://jts.hbp.com/pdf/design/135358_AU_HLP_3.pdf

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Comment:

By Don McCanne, MD

The majority of Americans obtain their insurance through their employment. Business has a vital concern in the financing of health care. This report adds to the plethora of evidence that business owners would be better off if they were relieved of their responsibilities of providing health benefit programs for their employees. So why is there not an outcry to switch to a proven financing system that would serve their employees well? Is it ideology?

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) calls for a financial penalty for larger employers who do not provide health care coverage for their employees. Could that be the reason? No, the resistance to change existed before ACA was enacted. Further, there are now so many experts in the policy community across the political spectrum who are calling for repeal of the penalty that it is likely that it will be eliminated anyway.

If so, what are employers likely to do? We are already seeing much interest in private health insurance exchanges. If ACA requirements on employers were lifted, they may be willing to provide their employees with a voucher to purchase plans in the private exchanges. Since that converts the benefit into a defined contribution, that would pass on to their employees the burden of future health care inflation.

Another possibility is that they might want to give their employees raises and then let them select their own plans in the state-based ACA exchanges. That would remove the employer entirely from the responsibility of supporting a health benefit program.

A concern that employers might have is that health care costs are now too high and income inequality has increased to the level such that health care benefits must be progressively financed if people are to receive the care they should have. Employers could be concerned that their tax burden may be increased to pay for the higher subsidies that will be needed for premiums and cost-sharing in the exchange programs. Not knowing what that tax burden might be could cause some reluctance to change from a system that at least they understand.

Most employers are well aware of the inefficiencies and high costs of our private insurance-based system. Would employers be ready to embrace a more efficient government-financed and government-administered single payer system? This may be their greatest fear because the financing would no doubt be through explicit progressive tax policies. Most proposals would reduce total health spending for 95 percent of us, but would increase it for those in the top 5 percent of income. 

Although some in the business community might be opposed simply because of ideology, for most it’s the money. We’ve learned the lessons that Thomas Piketty has for us, but we can’t apply them until we are willing to exercise democracy by changing the politics. That push for change will not come from the business community.