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Biden On McCain's Health Care Plan

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During the Vice Presidential Debate on Thursday night, Senator Joe Biden had this to say about John McCain’s health care plan:

… do you know how John McCain pays for his $5,000 tax credit you’re going to get, a family will get? He taxes as income every one of you out there, every one of you listening who has a health care plan through your employer. That’s how he raises $3.6 trillion, on your — taxing your health care benefit to give you a $5,000 plan, which his Web site points out will go straight to the insurance company. And then you’re going to have to replace a $12,000 — that’s the average cost of the plan you get through your employer — it costs $12,000. You’re going to have to pay — replace a $12,000 plan, because 20 million of you are going to be dropped. Twenty million of you will be dropped. So you’re going to have to place — replace a $12,000 plan with a $5,000 check you just give to the insurance company. I call that the “Ultimate Bridge to Nowhere.”

The thing is, Biden wasn’t telling the whole story. In fact he his statement was very misleading. He made it sound like Americans will be shortshrifted their health care, as employers dump their health care plans and force Americans to have to buy health care with very little help from the government.

Now, I do think there is a lot to be desired in McCain’s plan. For one, I don’t know if will help ensure the nearly 50 million currently without any health insurance. But Biden’s assessment of the plan is at best, misleading.

Writing in the New Atlantis, Joseph Capreta explains in pretty clear terms how the plan would work:

Suppose a worker gets $50,000 in cash wages and $12,000 in health insurance.

Right now, he pays federal income taxes on the wages but not the health insurance. Let’s assume, for reasons of simplicity, that the tax rate he is paying is a flat 25% on his wages. He therefore pays $12,500 in federal income taxes. His after-tax, after-health-care income is $37,500.

Now, under the McCain plan, his employer keeps paying the premium, which is now counted as income to the worker. He therefore pays federal income taxes on $62,000, or $15,500.

But he also gets a tax credit of $5,000 for health insurance, which means that, all in all, he owes $10,500 in federal taxes, or $2,000 less than he does today. His after-tax, after-health-care income is $39,500.

If the worker decides to buy his insurance in the open market instead of through the employer, the result will be the same. His employer is indifferent to how he pays his worker as long as total costs are the same. So instead of paying premiums, the employer pays his worker $62,000 in cash wages and does not pay anything toward insurance. The worker again owes $15,500 in taxes on this compensation, and he also must buy health insurance costing $12,000. So, his pre-tax income is $62,000, he owes $12,000 in health insurance premiums, and he owes $10,500 in federal taxes (after claiming his credit). His after-tax, after-health-care income is the same: $39,500 ($62,000 – $12,000 – $10,500), or $2,000 more than today.

So Biden was being very simplistic in saying that people’s taxes go up and we get a measly $5000 check. Yes, taxes would go up because wages would go up. However, the tax credit would help offset some of the tax bite. Ross Douthat explains a bit better than I ever could:

This is an argument you hear frequently from liberals: That McCain’s plan will tax employer provided health insurance, which is worth roughly $12,000 for a typical family, which in turn will lead many employers to stop offering said health insurance; meanwhile, the plan will give the same family a tax credit worth only $5,000 to pay for the same plan they used to have through their employer. This makes the whole thing sound like a pretty rotten deal, but it also begs a pretty big question: What happened to that extra $7,000 that employers were spending on health care under the old dispensation? To hear Biden tell it, it’ll just vanish into thin air. But that’s just absurd. Right now, that $12,000 plan is part of your compensation; it’s just that the current tax code incentivizes employers to pay you in health insurance rather than in cash, because the health insurance is tax free. But that doesn’t mean that if health insurance stops being tax free and employers stop including it in your package of salary and benefits, they’ll suddenly cut everyone’s compensation by $12,000; they’ll cut it by the cost of the tax deduction, presumably, and wages will rise to roughly where they would have been if employers had never been incentivized to pay their workers in health care. So the typical family will get their $5,000 credit from the government, and something like the remaining $7,000 they need to buy health insurance will show up in their paycheck. Except that a lot of Americans will actually come out ahead, rather than just breaking even, since McCain’s plan offers a flat credit regardless of income, whereas under the current system the dollar value of your tax deduction – and thus the compensation your employer is incentivized to give you – goes up as your income rises.

As I said before, there are some good reservations about McCain’s plan. It’s just that the concern that Biden brought up, just isn’t one of them.