By BOB HERBERT
Talk about a shock to the system. Has anyone bothered to notice the radical changes that John McCain and Sarah Palin are planning for the nation’s health insurance system?
These are changes that will set in motion nothing less than the dismantling of the employer-based coverage that protects most American families.
A study coming out Tuesday from scholars at Columbia, Harvard, Purdue and Michigan projects that 20 million Americans who have employment-based health insurance would lose it under the McCain plan.
There is nothing secret about Senator McCain’s far-reaching proposals, but they haven’t gotten much attention because the chatter in this campaign has mostly been about nonsense — lipstick, celebrities and “Drill, baby, drill!”
For starters, the McCain health plan would treat employer-paid health benefits as income that employees would have to pay taxes on.
“It means your employer is going to have to make an estimate on how much the employer is paying for health insurance on your behalf, and you are going to have to pay taxes on that money,” said Sherry Glied, an economist who chairs the Department of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.
Ms. Glied is one of the four scholars who have just completed an independent joint study of the plan. Their findings are being published on the Web site of the policy journal, Health Affairs.
According to the study: “The McCain plan will force millions of Americans into the weakest segment of the private insurance system — the nongroup market — where cost-sharing is high, covered services are limited and people will lose access to benefits they have now.”
The net effect of the plan, the study said, “almost certainly will be to increase family costs for medical care.”
Under the McCain plan (now the McCain-Palin plan) employees who continue to receive employer-paid health benefits would look at their pay stubs each week or each month and find that additional money had been withheld to cover the taxes on the value of their benefits.
While there might be less money in the paycheck, that would not be anything to worry about, according to Senator McCain. That’s because the government would be offering all taxpayers a refundable tax credit — $2,500 for a single worker and $5,000 per family — to be used “to help pay for your health care.”
You may think this is a good move or a bad one — but it’s a monumental change in the way health coverage would be provided to scores of millions of Americans. Why not more attention?
The whole idea of the McCain plan is to get families out of employer-paid health coverage and into the health insurance marketplace, where naked competition is supposed to take care of all ills. (We’re seeing in the Bear Stearns, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch fiascos just how well the unfettered marketplace has been working.)
Taxing employer-paid health benefits is the first step in this transition, the equivalent of injecting poison into the system. It’s the beginning of the end.
When younger, healthier workers start seeing additional taxes taken out of their paychecks, some (perhaps many) will opt out of the employer-based plans — either to buy cheaper insurance on their own or to go without coverage.
That will leave employers with a pool of older, less healthy workers to cover. That coverage will necessarily be more expensive, which will encourage more and more employers to give up on the idea of providing coverage at all.
The upshot is that many more Americans — millions more — will find themselves on their own in the bewildering and often treacherous health insurance marketplace. As Senator McCain has said: “I believe the key to real reform is to restore control over our health care system to the patients themselves.”
Yet another radical element of McCain’s plan is his proposal to undermine state health insurance regulations by allowing consumers to buy insurance from sellers anywhere in the country. So a requirement in one state that insurers cover, for example, vaccinations, or annual physicals, or breast examinations, would essentially be meaningless.
In a refrain we’ve heard many times in recent years, Mr. McCain said he is committed to ridding the market of these “needless and costly” insurance regulations.
This entire McCain health insurance transformation is right out of the right-wing Republicans’ ideological playbook: fewer regulations; let the market decide; and send unsophisticated consumers into the crucible alone.
You would think that with some of the most venerable houses on Wall Street crumbling like sand castles right before our eyes, we’d be a little wary about spreading this toxic formula even further into the health care system.
But we’re not even paying much attention.