Commentary

How an Insurance Mandate Could Leave Many Worse Off

Americans seem to like the idea of broadening health insurance coverage, but they may not want to be forced to buy it. With health care costs high and rising, such government mandates would make many people worse off.

The proposals now before Congress would require just about everyone to buy health insurance or to get it through their employers — which would generally result in lower wages. In other words, millions of people would be compelled to spend lots of money on something they previously did not want, at least not at prevailing prices.

Estimates of this burden vary, but for a family of four it could range up to $14,000 a year over the next decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Right now, many Americans take the gamble of going without insurance, just as many of us take our chances with how much we drive or how little we exercise.

The paradox is this: Reform advocates start with anecdotes about the underprivileged who are uninsured, then turn around and propose something that would hurt at least some members of that group.

To ease the burdens of the insurance mandate, the reform proposals call for varying levels of subsidy. In some versions, such as the current Senate bill, subsidies are handed out to families with incomes as high as $88,000 a year. How long will it be before just about everyone wants further assistance, and this new form of entitlement spending spins out of control? It’s possible to lower insurance subsidies, but then the insurance mandate would impose a bigger burden on the people we are trying to help.

A subtler problem is what economists call “implicit marginal tax rates.”

The fiscal reality is that not all income groups can receive equal subsidies; as a family earns more, its subsidy would probably decrease, eventually falling to zero. But then we are taking money away from the poor as they climb into higher income categories. This is a disincentive to earn more, and the strength of the disincentive increases with our initial generosity. For many people, the health insurance aid would phase out when food stamps, housing vouchers and the earned income tax credit also end and the personal income tax kicks in.

This structure of incentives would likely discourage many parents from earning a better life for their children. Congress could tweak the subsidies so they don’t phase out so quickly, but then we’re back to very high fiscal costs and subsidies for many families in the higher income classes.

Defenders of a broad health insurance mandate argue that it will lower average costs in the health care market. The claim is that many of the uninsured are young, healthy or both, and that bringing them into the insurance pool might lower average premiums by spreading risk across low-cost groups. Yet Massachusetts has had a health insurance mandate for several years and this cost-saving mechanism does not appear to be kicking in.

At this point, it seems more plausible that the cost of health insurance will keep rising, just as the costs of health care services have continued to climb. The upshot is that the burdens of mandatory purchase, the subsidy costs and the associated implicit marginal tax rates will all increase, eventually to the point of unsustainability.

A further problem is “mandate creep,” which we’ve seen at the state level, as groups lobby for various types of coverage — whether for acupuncture, alcoholism and fertility treatments, for example, or for chiropractor services or marriage counseling.

There are now about 1,500 insurance mandates among the various states, and hundreds of others are under consideration. The dynamic at work here is that the affected groups have a big incentive to push for mandates, while most other people are unaware of the specific issues and don’t become involved.

Because mandates don’t stay modest for long, health insurance would become all the more expensive. The Obama administration’s cost estimates haven’t considered these longer-run “political economy” issues.

If there is a problem with mandates, why do they seem to work in countries like Switzerland and the Netherlands? One answer is that mandates are more effective when health care cost inflation is under control, and both of those countries fare better at technocracy than the larger, less tightly ordered United States.

And mandates also fare better in those nations because of their greater equality of incomes. In other words, it’s less of a stretch to offer poorer people coverage that is roughly comparable to that of the wealthy.

If anything, however, European mandates will face growing problems, as health care cost inflation is spreading globally.

We’re often told that America should copy the health care institutions of Western Europe. Yet we’re failing to copy the single most important lesson from those systems — namely, to put cost control first. Instead, we’re putting our foot on the gas pedal and ratcheting up the fiscal pressures on the system, in the hope that someday, somehow, it will all work out.

As it stands, we’re on the verge of enacting a policy that is due to explode, penalizing many of the very people that it was ostensibly designed to help.

Tyler Cowen is an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and a professor of economics at George Mason University.