Rant by Congressional Spouse Illustrates the Problem Facing American Health Care

Last week, the wife of Rep. Joe Cunningham (D-S.C.) went on a self-described “rant on social media” about her health coverage.

Amanda Cunningham’s comments echo claims by Democratic lawmakers like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Cindy Axne (D-Iowa) about the problems with their health coverage. For many members of Congress that comes via Obamacare-compliant policies sold on health insurance exchanges.

The comments raise one obvious question: If Democrats don’t like Obamacare plans for themselves, then why did they force all Americans to buy this insurance under penalty of taxation? But beyond demonstrating the bipartisan dissatisfaction with Obamacare, Amanda Cunningham’s story illustrates the larger problems plaguing the American health care system.

Mental Health Parity

In her Instagram post, Cunningham complained that under her Blue Cross Blue Shield policy, “all of my mental health therapy sessions are denied, in addition to all of our marriage counseling sessions.” She continued: “It’s just mind-blowing to me that these basic well-known needs, that mental health is health care, are still being denied, that we’re still fighting for these absolutely basic things—it’s unbelievable to me.”

Cunningham didn’t go into many specifics about her case, but on one level, her argument sounds compelling. The opioid crisis has shone a brighter spotlight on the people who need treatment to cover mental illness or substance use disorders. Congress passed mental health parity legislation (as part of the TARP bill, of all things) in 2008, and Section 1311(j) of Obamacare extended these provisions to exchange plans.

Other People’s Money

On the other hand, consider that members of Congress receive a salary of $174,000 annually—more than most Americans (myself included). Consider also that unlike all other Americans purchasing coverage on Obamacare exchanges (myself included), Cunningham, other members of Congress, and their staff receive (likely illegal) subsidies offsetting much of the cost of their health insurance premiums.

More importantly, consider that each coverage requirement on insurers—whether to cover a certain type of treatment (e.g., mental health, in-vitro fertilization, etc.) or treatments provided by a certain type of provider (e.g., marriage counselor, podiatrist, etc.)—raise the price of health insurance each month. Collectively, the thousands of mandates imposed nationwide increase premiums by hundreds of dollars per year.

They also send a paternalistic message to Americans: The policy-makers who impose these coverage requirements would rather individuals go uninsured, because their premiums have become unaffordable, than purchase a plan without the covered benefit or treatment in question.

She didn’t say it outright, but in her “rant,” Cunningham wanted to raise premiums on other Americans—most of whom earn far less than her family—so she would receive “free” therapy. Viewed from this perspective, her objections seem somewhat self-serving from a family in the upper tier of the income spectrum.

Therein lies the problem of American health care: Everyone wants to spend everyone else’s money rather than their own. Everyone wants “their” treatments—in this case, Cunningham’s counseling sessions—covered, even if others pay more. And if their chosen therapies are covered by insurance, with little to no cost-sharing, patients will consume more health care, because they believe they are spending their insurer’s money rather than their own.

Obamacare Made It Worse

The 2010 health care law didn’t cause this problem. However, as the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) noted in its November 2009 analysis of the legislation’s premium impacts, the federal benefit requirements included in the measure raised insurance rates significantly:

Because of the greater actuarial value and broader scope of benefits that would be covered by new nongroup policies sold under the legislation, the average premium per person for those policies would be an estimated 27 percent to 30 percent higher than the average premium for nongroup policies under current law (with other factors held constant). The increase in actuarial value would push the average premium per person about 18 percent to 21 percent above its level under current law, before the increase in enrollees’ use of medical care resulting from lower cost sharing is considered; that induced increase, along with the greater scope of benefits, would account for the remainder of the overall difference.

In CBO’s view, the law required people to buy richer insurance policies, and those richer policies encouraged people to consume more health care, both of which led to a rise in premiums. Unfortunately, that rise in premiums over the past several years has led millions of individuals who do not qualify for insurance subsidies (unlike Amanda Cunningham) to drop their coverage.

Get the Incentives Right

Sooner or later, our country will run out of other people’s money to spend on health care. Despite her impassioned plea, only a movement away from the solutions Cunningham advocated for can prevent that day from coming sooner rather than later.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Democrats’ Taxing Health Care Promises

July’s Democratic presidential debates left seasoned health policy professionals confused, struggling to understand both the candidates’ policies and the differences among them. But working families should find Democrats’ health care debate taxing for another reason. For all their vows that Americans can obtain unlimited “free” health care while only “the rich” will pay, the major candidates are writing out checks that will end up on middle class families’ tab.

In this debate, Bernie Sanders wins credit for candor, in the sense that he has dissembled less than his opponents. Admitting that his single-payer plan will require tax hikes, in April Sanders proposed a 4% income tax, along with a 7.5% payroll tax, among other revenue increases to fund his system.

Unfortunately for Sanders, however, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget believes the tax increases he has proposed to date will pay for only about half of the more than $30 trillion cost of his single-payer scheme. In that, the organization echoes experience from Sanders’ home state of Vermont. In 2014, Gov. Peter Shumlin abandoned efforts to enact a state-based single payer system, because the accompanying tax increases created “a risk of an economic shock.” Shumlin said single payer in Vermont would have required a 9.5% income tax, and an 11.5% payroll tax—far higher levels than Sanders has proposed.

While Sanders admits that the middle class will pay more taxes to fund single payer, both he and Elizabeth Warren argue that families will save overall, because the program would eliminate premiums, deductibles, and other forms of cost-sharing. Unfortunately, studies from across the political spectrum—from the conservative Heartland Institute to former Clinton Administration official Kenneth Thorpe—disagree.

In 2016, Thorpe concluded that 71% of households would pay more under a Sanders plan fully funded by tax increases. Low-income households would get hit even worse, with 85% of families on Medicaid paying more. Since then, Sanders has only increased the generosity of his single-payer proposal, meaning taxes on the middle class could rise even more than Thorpe originally estimated.

Perhaps to elide the tax landmines, Kamala Harris’ plan breaks with Warren and Sanders, delaying the move to a single payer system for a decade. She claims the delay “will lower the overall cost of the program”—but only until the program phases in fully. At that point, her pledge not to raise taxes on families making under $100,000 will prove unsustainable. But if Harris has her way, a 10-year delay until full implementation of single-payer could punt the tax problem to her successor.

As for Joe Biden, he has tried to portray himself as protecting middle class families from the tax hikes he calls inevitable under the other major contenders’ plans. But Biden has two problems.

First, Biden supports restoring Obamacare’s individual mandate penalty, which Republicans eliminated in 2017. The Supreme Court in 2012 dubbed the mandate a tax—and that tax happens to hit the middle class hard. The most recent IRS data show that in 2016, of the $3.6 billion in mandate penalties paid by American households, nearly 63% came from households with incomes of under $50,000, and more than 88% came from households with incomes below $100,000.

Second, as the Wall Street Journal reported back in July, Biden over the past two years deliberately utilized tax loopholes to avoid paying Obamacare taxes. By classifying more than $13 million in proceeds from books and speeches as profits from his corporations, rather than wage income, Joe and Jill Biden circumvented nearly $500,000 in self-employment taxes—taxes that fund Obamacare and Medicare.

Biden’s behavior, which multiple experts interviewed by the Journal called legally questionable, belies both his “Middle Class Joe” reputation and his support for Obamacare. Apparently, Biden supports Obamacare only if someone else will pay for it. But if a one-percenter like Joe Biden finds paying for the Affordable Care Act unaffordable for him, then whom would Biden hit to pay the $750 billion price tag of his Obamacare expansion efforts? Why, the middle class, of course.

Biden’s unwillingness to pay the taxes associated with an Obamacare law he purportedly wants to protect epitomizes Margaret Thatcher’s axiom that socialists eventually run out of other people’s money. At the rate he and his fellow candidates are racking up costly health care promises, that moment seems very near at hand.

This post was originally published at The Daily Wire.

How Joe Biden Deliberately Avoided Paying Obamacare Taxes

In the campaign for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, Joe Biden has portrayed himself as Obamacare’s biggest defender. His health care plan, released this month, pledges to “protect the Affordable Care Act” and states that he “opposes every effort to get rid of this historic law.”

However, his campaign rhetoric in support of Obamacare overlooks one key fact: For the past two years, Joe Biden structured his financial dealings specifically to avoid paying a tax that funds “this historic law,” along with the Medicare program.

While the Bidens paid federal income taxes on all their income, they did not have to pay self-employment taxes on these millions of dollars in profits. The Bidens saved as much as $500,000 in self-employment taxes by taking most of their compensation as profits from the corporation, as opposed to salary.

The Journal cited multiple tax experts who called the Bidens’ move “pretty aggressive,” and a “pretty cut and dried” abuse of the system. Given that most of their income came from writing and speaking engagements, one expert called that income “all attributable to [their] efforts” as individuals and thus wage income, rather than a broader effort by any corporation resulting in profits.

Most important to Biden’s political future is what that foregone self-employment tax revenue would have funded. Section 9015 of Obamacare increased the tax’s rate from 2.9 percent to 3.8 percent for all income above $200,000 for an individual, and $250,000 for a family. By taking comparatively small salaries from their S corporations and receiving most of their income as profits from those corporations, the Bidens avoided paying a tax that funds an Obamacare law Joe Biden claims he wants to defend.

Moreover, the other 2.9 percent in self-employment tax helps finance the Medicare program, which faces its own bleak fiscal future. According to the program trustees, the program will become insolvent by 2026, just seven years from now. If people like Joe Biden use tax strategies to avoid paying self-employment taxes, Medicare’s date of insolvency will only accelerate.

During the last presidential election cycle, Sen. Bernie Sanders repeatedly returned to Hillary Clinton’s paid speeches before companies like Goldman Sachs. Both the more than $100 million in income Bill and Hillary Clinton generated from their speeches, and Hillary Clinton’s insouciance at the vast sums she received—“That’s what they offered,” she said of the $675,000 sum Goldman Sachs paid her to give three speeches—made her look out-of-touch with the concerns of families struggling to make ends meet.

Likewise, Biden’s 2020 competitors almost certainly will use the questions about his taxes to undermine his image as “Middle Class Joe.” Few middle-class families will make in a lifetime the $15.6 million in income that the Bidens received in but two years. Moreover, how can Joe Biden claim to defend Obamacare—let alone Medicare—when he created a tax strategy specifically to avoid paying taxes that fund those two programs?

In 2014, Barack Obama, whose administration proposed ending the loophole the Bidens used to avoid self-employment taxes, attacked corporations for seeking to migrate to lower-tax jurisdictions overseas: “It is true that there are a lot of things that are legal that probably aren’t the right thing to do by the country.” In Joe Biden’s case, his tax behavior probably wasn’t the right thing to help his political future either.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.