In his State of the Union address on Tuesday, the President proposed a change in tax policy that would end the link between employment and health care ... but that could make health care less affordable overall. The stated purpose of his proposal is to "even the playing field' between those with employer-provided coverage (which is currently subsidized through the tax code) and those who purchase coverage in the individual health insurance market (which is mostly not subsidized under the tax code). This would be accomplished by giving all taxpayers a new deduction if they have health insurance, whether it's through an employer or otherwise. The deduction would be $7,500 for an individual and $15,000 for a family, regardless of how much the health insurance costs, and would reduce both income and payroll taxes. In addition, health insurance benefits provided by an employer would be counted as income for the first time. But most of the families receiving health insurance through their employer would get a tax break initially, since for most (although certainly not all), coverage costs less than $15,000 for a family or $7,500 for an individual.
Unfortunately, rather than evening the playing field, the President's plan would make the tax code more biased towards individually purchased health care and maybe even high-deductible health care. The new health care deduction could encourage some employers to "cash out" the health insurance benefits they currently offer to their employees, since the tax subsidy would no longer be limited to employer-provided insurance. If their employees try to buy health insurance individually, they will find that the plans offered on the individual market are much more expensive and less generous. Since the amount of the new deduction would be indexed to regular cost inflation but not to health care inflation (which is steeper) more and more people over time would find that their coverage costs more than the new deduction. And many people in more expensive plans are those with more critical health care needs or those who live in a part of the country where health care is simply more expensive. In the end, this plan is another attempt to shift risks back onto individuals who have little ability to cope with it on their own.