Bush’s Standard Health Insurance Deduction: Tax Hike or No?

National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru takes the Bush administration’s economist Kate Baicker and spokesman Tony Snow to task for what he suggests is a misleading representation of the President’s proposed “standard health insurance deduction.”

Briefly, under that proposal, most people who purchase health insurance would receive a substantial tax cut.  However, some workers would no longer be able to exempt from taxation the full amount of their health benefits.  Individuals who now receive more than $7,500 in health benefits, and families that receive more than $15,000 worth, would have to pay taxes on the difference. 

Ponnuru writes:

Snow and Baicker are right to say that if the proposal becomes law, compensation packages will adjust, with expensive plans being scaled back and the savings passed on in higher wages. But those higher wages will be taxed. No matter how the compensation package is rearranged, the percentage of compensation that is taxed will go up for these people.

My Cato colleague Arnold Kling concurs.  I disagree.

I think there are ways to avoid a tax increase, though I agree with Ramesh that this New York Times article didn’t do enough to explain how. 

In today’s New York Sun, I discuss the prospect of tax increases on workers with expensive health benefits:

Though that’s troubling, it is by no means certain. In fact, those workers may not face a net tax increase at all, because the President’s proposal would reduce other costs on those same workers. One such “tax” is the higher health care costs that result from the current employer-sponsored system. The President’s proposal would reduce that tax. Another is the current penalty imposed on workers who do not buy coverage through an employer. The President’s proposal would eliminate that tax.

Finally, when premiums exceed the proposed deductions, employers could reduce health benefits and shift the difference to other untaxed compensation, such as contributions to health savings accounts, life insurance, or 401(k)s. That would leave those workers with zero additional taxes. Or they could shift that difference to wages, in which case the workers would pay taxes on it, but their take-home pay would rise.

Of course, it would become more difficult to avoid a tax increase over time.  The deduction amounts would rise with overall inflation, while health insurance premiums traditionally have risen much faster.

I’ll be discussing these issues with Kate Baicker and the Urban Institute’s Len Burman at a Capitol Hill briefing tomorrow.