AND SO IT BEGINS: Big Business Takes Aim at Parts of Health Care Reform

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The U.S. Chamber of Commerce recently said that it will not try to repeal the new health care reform law. Has big business seen the light?

No. Actually, the Chamber is still planning on spending $50 million to defeat lawmakers who voted in favor of reform. And they will work to shape regulations and try to repeal parts of the law that are not in the interest of big business, which presumably includes the health insurance industry. Which means it's hard to see what part of the new law the Chamber does NOT want to repeal.

Business groups are already taking aim at particular provisions. For example, the American Benefits Council is complaining that several large corporations must take write-downs ranging from $50 million to $1 billion on their financial statements because the health care reform law repealed a tax break enacted as part of the Medicare prescription drug law in 2003.

The tax break in question should never have been enacted. The prescription drug law subsidizes companies that provide prescription drug coverage for their retirees, ostensibly to prevent those retirees from shifting over to the government program. On top of this subsidy, the companies were also allowed to continue deducting the entire costs of the drug coverage, including the 28 percent subsidy paid by the government.

The health care reform law leaves in place those 28 percent subsidies but repeals the deductions. Telecommunications giant AT&T announced that it would take a $1 billion charge against its profits to reflect the likely future impact of this tax change. Verizon announced a $970 million charge, and other companies, including Exelon, 3M, Caterpillar and John Deere, announced charges in the millions or tens of millions.

But this is only because they're losing a tax break that was never really justified in the first place. The point of deductions is that they account for expenses that companies pay and that reduce their bottom line, i.e., reduce their profits, because profit is what is ultimately taxed. It makes no sense for a company to deduct a subsidy from the government because it does not reflect an expense paid by the company itself.

It seems that Congress really wanted to give these companies a larger subsidy than just the 28 percent, but decided that it would be easier to do so through the tax code. Whether or not larger subsidies were justified, it's generally poor policy to provide them through the tax code because it creates more tax complexity (causing corporations to pour more resources into figuring out how to lower their tax liability) and is less transparent. At least direct spending on subsidies for corporations show up as "costs" each year in government budget documents and are debated extensively by lawmakers. Corporate subsidies provided through the tax code, however, rarely receive this much attention.

It's also worth pointing out that the charges that the companies are announcing may sound like big numbers, but they're actually costs to the companies over many, many years. They reflect the costs of paying full taxes on those subsidies for retiree drug coverage over the course of the retirees' lives, which will be decades. They do NOT represent costs that they must pay this year.

Also, to the extent that the health care reform law provides any benefits to these companies, those are not going to show up on their financial statements today, which is another reason that they are a poor measure of how reform will affect them. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius recently said that company executives she has communicated with "admit at the outset that what they will give up in terms of closing that kind of a loophole on tax benefits is well overcome by the kind of savings they're looking at with not only incentives for businesses to keep health insurance for their employees, but the kind of wellness and prevention efforts to lower costs in the long run."

Finally, it's entertaining to see conservatives tie themselves in knots as they try to defend the massive subsidies provided in the Medicare prescription drug law (enacted under President Bush) despite their supposedly "free market" philosophy. The Wall Street Journal, presumably, does not support government subsidies, but their opposition seems to melt when some part of the subsidy takes the form of a tax break.

The paper essentially argues that the subsidy and the tax break are justified because they actually save the government money by keeping retirees off of the Medicare prescription drug program. It may or may not be true that the 28 percent subsidy ends up saving the government money, but there is no reason to think that the double deduction, on top of that subsidy, does so, too. On the contrary, the Joint Committee on Taxation estimates that scrapping this unjustified tax break will save the government $4.5 billion from fiscal 2013 through fiscal 2019.

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