Employment-Based Health Insurance: A Look at Tax Issues and Public Opinion

July 1999
EBRI Issue Brief #211
Paperback, 20 pp.
PDF, 107 kb
Employee Benefit Research Institute, 1999

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Executive Summary

  • This Issue Brief provides background information on the employment-based health insurance system and its alternatives. The report discusses the advantages and disadvantages of the current employment-based health insurance system, the current tax treatment of health insurance, and the strength and weaknesses of recent proposals to introduce tax credits. It presents findings from the public opinion survey conducted by the Employee Benefit Research Institute on public attitudes toward health insurance and summarizes recent research on the effects of tax changes on employment-based health benefits and the uninsured.
  • Employment-based health plans are the most common source of health insurance among nonelderly individuals in the United States, providing coverage to nearly two-thirds of this population in 1997. Health insurance is probably the benefit most used and valued by workers and their families. Sixty-four percent of respondents to a recent survey rated employment-based health insurance benefits as the most important benefit.
  • Despite essentially five years of very low health care cost increases and the recent increase in the percentage of Americans with employment-based health insurance coverage, the uninsured population has continued to rise. This has resulted in a new interest among policymakers in finding ways to reverse this trend. One question that continues to be asked is whether the employment-based health insurance system is the appropriate mechanism for expanding health insurance to the uninsured.
  • Employment-based health plans are popular because they offer many advantages over other forms of health insurance and types of delivery systems. However, there are also potential drawbacks to the employment-based system. The advantages include reduced risk of adverse selection, group-purchasing efficiencies, employers acting as a workers' advocate, delivery innovation, and health care quality. The disadvantages include an unfair tax treatment, lack of portability and job lock, little choice of health plans, and lack of universal coverage.
  • The tax credit proposals for health insurance, which come in all shapes and sizes, would either enhance the current employment-based health insurance system or put it at risk. This has potentially enormous public policy implications, since the vast majority of Americans get their health insurance coverage through employers. Such a change may also have political implications, as public opinion currently may not support such a fundamental change in the U.S. health insurance system. A recent public opinion survey conducted by the Employee Benefit Research Institute found that 68 percent of Americans with employment-based health insurance were satisfied with the current mix of benefits and wages.
  • The EBRI survey found that under a changing tax code scenario, there is still strong support for the employment-based system. Strong support for the employment-based system may be the result of respondents' lack of confidence in their ability to choose the best health plan if their employer stopped offering health insurance.