Key Democrats have already announced that the president's plan to use the tax code to encourage more Americans to obtain health insurance is dead on arrival on Capitol Hill. They complain that this is just one more scheme to give tax breaks to people who don't need them, while continuing to deny essential health care to the most vulnerable.
The president's plan deserves a more serious look. The health insurance problem is two-fold: Too many Americans, some 47 million, lack basic health insurance; and the rising cost of health care makes even those with insurance at risk of being unable to afford good care.
About 175 million Americans receive insurance through their jobs. Under the current system, they don't pay taxes on this benefit, even on the portion of the premium that is paid by their employers, and they also don't get a deduction for the portion of the premiums they pay out of pocket.
When an employer looks to hire someone, he calculates the total cost of that employee: salary, employer payroll taxes and benefits, including health insurance premiums. In terms of the true cost to the employer, a dollar paid for insurance for the employee is no different than a dollar paid in wages.
But to the employee, the health care coverage is worth much more than its equivalent in cash, because the former comes tax-free, while the latter gets taxed. Under the president's plan, insurance premiums for employer-provided health insurance would be treated like any other income, as they should be. However, this would be offset by a new tax deduction.
The president proposes to allow a standard income and payroll tax deduction of $15,000 to every family ($7,500 for an individual with no dependents) for health insurance. Since the average family policy costs about $11,500, this would benefit most people who receive insurance through work (everyone would get the same standard deduction, regardless of the cost of their insurance).
But the real winners would be the uninsured and those who choose insurance policies with lower premiums but higher deductibles. The uninsured would now be able to use the money they would have paid Uncle Sam to put toward purchasing health insurance. For someone in the 30 percent tax bracket, that would be $4,500 they could use to pay for health premiums. The working poor, who pay little or no income tax, would still receive a break on their payroll taxes, though not enough to pay for most current insurance policies.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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