Administration open to taxing health benefits
Proposal problematic for Obama as he denounced similar one in campaign
WASHINGTON – The Obama administration is signaling to Congress that the president could support taxing some employee health benefits, as several influential lawmakers and many economists favor, to help pay for overhauling the health care system.
The proposal is politically problematic for President Obama, however, since it is similar to one he denounced in the presidential campaign as “the largest middle-class tax increase in history.” Most Americans with insurance get it from their employers, and taxing workers for the benefit is opposed by union leaders and some businesses. [To be accurate this wil be the second largest tax increase on the middle class in the history of the Country – the first will be the “Cap & Trade” environmental taxes on heating and light bills paid by the middle class, poor and every company that makes, grows or distributes a product in or out of the USA]
In television advertisements last fall, Mr. Obama criticized his Republican rival for the presidency, Senator John McCain of Arizona, for proposing to tax all employer-provided health benefits. The benefits have long been tax-free, regardless of how generous they are or how much an employee earns. The advertisements did not point out that Mr. McCain, in exchange, wanted to give all families a tax credit to subsidize the purchase of coverage.
At the time, even some Obama supporters said privately that he might come to regret his position if he won the election; in effect, they said, he was potentially giving up an important option to help finance his ambitious health care agenda to reduce medical costs and to expand coverage to the 46 million uninsured Americans. [a number that includes illegal aliens and those 18 to 25 who opt out of purchasing available health insurance from employers or their school – 88% of Americans are currently insured – that number rises to 96% if illegals and the young who “opt out” are subtracted] Now that Mr. Obama has begun the health debate, several advisers say that while he will not propose changing the tax-free status of employee health benefits, neither will he oppose it if Congress does so. [What double talk – Obama, as President is the head of the Democratic Party – The Democratic Congress would not pass a tax on health care without his approval – Obama has a Veto does he not – Even if the Democratic Congress passed such a measure he could Veto it – The Democratic Congress would never pass such a measure without Obama’s approval – if not in public – behind closed doors]
At a recent Congressional hearing, Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat whose own health plan would make benefits taxable, asked Peter R. Orszag, the president’s budget director, about the issue. Mr. Orszag replied that it “most firmly should remain on the table.”
Mr. Orszag, an economist who has served as director of the Congressional Budget Office, has written favorably of taxing some employer-provided health benefits and using the revenue savings for other health-related incentives. So has another Obama adviser, Jason Furman, the deputy director of the White House National Economic Council.
When Senator Max Baucus, Democrat of Montana, advocated taxing benefits at a recent hearing of the Finance Committee, which he leads, Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner assured him that the administration was open to all ideas from Congress. Mr. Geithner did, however, allude to the position that Mr. Obama had taken as a candidate.
Mr. Obama’s own idea for raising revenues for health care — limiting the income tax deductions that the most affluent taxpayers claim — has run into opposition not only from Mr. Baucus but also from his counterpart in the House, Representative Charles B. Rangel, Democrat of New York, who is chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.
Mr. Obama’s proposed limit on deductions would raise an estimated $318 billion over 10 years, or half of his proposed “health care reserve fund.” That is a fraction of the revenues that could be raised from taxing employer-provided health benefits.
In the campaign, Mr. McCain estimated that taxing all health benefits would raise $3.6 trillion over a decade — “a multitrillion-dollar tax hike,” one Obama advertisement said.
The Congressional Budget Office says that including health benefits in taxable income could mean $246 billion in additional revenue for a single year. Stopping short of full taxation, as Mr. Baucus and others suggest, would mean less new revenue.
The latest government figures, for 2007, show that 70 percent of the 253 million people with health insurance received at least some of their coverage through employers. Employment-based insurance covers 60% of the population under 65.
Alan V. Reuther, legislative director of the United Automobile Workers, said: “These proposals would represent a tax increase on working families. They would undermine good health care coverage.”
But at the Service Employees International Union, which was an early supporter of Mr. Obama, Dennis Rivera, the coordinator of the union’s health care campaign, said that while his organization was “predisposed not to agree to the taxing of health benefits,” he would wait to pass judgment. The union, Mr. Rivera said, wants to see how any tax changes fit into the overall effort to revamp the health care system. “We need to see the total picture,” he said.
This story, Administration Is Open to Taxing Health Benefits, originally appeared in the New York Times.