Employee Health Insurance

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Almost one out of every seven dollars spent in the United States is spent on health care, with average expenditures per person increasing with age. It is not surprising, then, that health care insurance is of primary importance not only for all Americans, but especially for aging Americans. While all individuals over the age of sixty-five are eligible for Medicare, the federal government program of health insurance for elderly persons, the predominant option for adults under the age of sixty-five is health insurance that is related to employment. With a focus on individuals nearing traditional retirement age, this article will discuss the history and economic theory behind employer-provided health insurance, the prevalence and types of coverage provided, the impacts on work and retirement decisions of having health insurance be tied to employment, and recent legislation of health insurance in the United States.

The history and economic theory of employer-provided health insurance

Prior to World War II, very few American companies provided health insurance for their employees, and less than half of the U.S. population was covered by health insurance. During the war, however, as soldiers went to serve overseas, there was a shortage of workers back home. The combination of a reduced supply of workers, a booming economy, and rationing of scarce consumer goods led the government to impose price and wage freezes to try to limit inflation. Since employers were not allowed to increase wages to attract new workers, they began offering fringe benefits such as health insurance as a way to attract and keep workers. Thus, having employer-provided health insurance became prevalent not because of economic justification for insurance being linked with employment, but as a way for employers to circumvent the wage freezes imposed by government.

A second factor that has contributed significantly to the prevalence of employer-provided health insurance is a special tax treatment such that while wages are subject to taxation, employees do not have to pay any income tax for health insurance benefits. This has provided a strong financial incentive for employees to get insurance from their employer rather than purchasing insurance privately, since these insurance policies are essentially purchased with pre-tax dollars. In the 1950s, when federal marginal tax rates reached over 90 percent (meaning that an individual must pay more than 90 cents in taxes for each additional dollar in income), the tax incentives were particularly intense, and thus the momentum begun by the labor shortages during the war continued long after the war. While marginal tax rates are much lower than they were in the 1950s, a study in 2000 by Anne Beeson Royalty found that the tax rate continues to have a significant effect on employer-provided health carea one-point increase in the marginal tax rate increases the probability an employee will be offered employer-provided health insurance by almost 1 percent. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that having health insurance benefits be tax-free reduced government tax revenue by $120 billion in 2001.

Although it may seem that having employers provide insurance is a benefit to the employee and a cost to the employer, according to economic theory the employee pays the cost of insurance in the form of lower wages. The demand for workers depends on the total compensation that employers must pay, both wages and fringe benefits; if total compensation is higher, the firm is not willing to hire as many workers. The supply of workers is determined by how many workers are willing to work at various compensation levels. If an employer offers health insurance benefits at the current wage, the total compensation package increases and more people are willing to work. Thus, if employers offer health insurance while keeping wages the same, there will be a surplus of workers because employers want to hire a smaller number of workers at the same time that more workers are willing to be employed.

The result of a surplus of workers is a reduction in wages until wages reach the point where the number of workers a firm wants to hire equals the number of workers willing to work at that compensation level. Because the supply of workers is less sensitive to wage changes than the demand for workers, most of the cost of insurance gets passed on to the worker in the form of lower wages. The lower wages may not happen immediately, since employers are often hesitant to reduce employee wages, but more likely will happen over time in the form of smaller raises to compensate for the higher benefits package. The bottom line, from the economic theory, is clear; the cost of health insurance gets passed on to the employee in the form of lower wages. (For more discussion of this, see Mark Pauly's book Health Benefits at Work, which provides a thorough, nontechnical explanation of the economic theory of who pays for employer-provided health insurance. For a more technical treatment, see B. Mitchell and Charles Phelps's 1976 article in the Journal of Political Economy. )

Prevalence and types of health insurance coverage

Approximately 84 percent of the United States population has some type of health insurance coverage. This coverage comes from one of five sources: (1) health insurance provided by an employer, (2) individual insurance policies purchased in the private market, (3) Medicaid (the government program for low-income families), (4) Medicare (the government program for disabled persons and elderly persons), and (5) military or veterans insurance. Figure 1 shows the percentage of individuals with each type of insurance, by age, for individuals between 25 and 64 years of age. Individuals age 65 and older (not shown in the graph) are eligible for Medicare and thus have the highest rate of insurance, with 98.9 percent of this population covered by insurance. Less than 14 percent of individuals age 45 to 64 are uninsured, compared to over 16 percent of individuals age 35 to 44, and over 22 percent of individuals age 25 to 34. Thus the rate of insurance is quite high for the elderly and near-elderly, relative to younger adults.

The type of insurance coverage varies dramatically with age, with the youngest and oldest workers being least likely to receive coverage from employer-based insurance. Only 65 percent of individuals age 55 to 64 receive employer-provided health insurance, compared to 74 percent of individuals age 45 to 54. These older individuals (age 55 to 64) counter this lack of employer-provided insurance with a greater reliance on the individual insurance market. Over 8 percent of the near-elderly purchase individual insurance, almost twice as many as in other age groups. Finally, Medicare is an important provider of insurance for those age 55 to 64 as they begin to experience escalating health problems, with almost 6 percent qualifying for Medicare because of disability.

The average rate of insurance for individuals nearing retirement age masks some important differences experienced by subgroups of this population. Richard Johnson and Stephen Crystal (1997) did a detailed breakdown of insurance coverage for a sample of 12,000 individuals age 53 to 64 who were interviewed about their health and insurance in 1992, and again in 1994. In their sample, 75 percent of the individuals in this age group were covered by employment-based insurance, 9 percent had no insurance coverage, and the other 16 percent were covered by government insurance (including Medicare and Medicaid) or privately purchased insurance.

While Johnson and Crystal found no gender differences in the prevalence of coverage by employer-provided insurance, 11 percent of women in the sample had no insurance, compared to only 7 percent of men. However, this gender difference is primarily related to differences in marital status rather than gender itself. Women are less likely to be currently married, and married couples are significantly more likely to be covered by insurance than individuals who are not married (8 percent of married individuals have no insurance, compared to 16 percent of divorced, 17 percent of widowed, and 12 percent of never-married individuals). These differences in insurance coverage by marital status are directly related to employment-based insurance. Seventy-eight percent of married individuals are covered by employment-based insurance (either their own or their spouse's) compared to only 55 to 60 percent of those not currently married.

Race and education also play a role in whether an individual has employment-based insurance, other insurance, or no insurance at all. African Americans are more than twice as likely to have no insurance coverage than whites (14.2 percent compared to 7 percent), and Hispanics are almost four times as likely to have no insurance than whites (27.7 percent compared to 7 percent). Similar differences can be seen in coverage by employment-based insurance (78 percent of whites have employment-based insurance compared to 62.8 percent of African Americans and 48.8 percent of Hispanics). The more education an individual has, the less likely there will be no insurance coverage and the greater the likelihood of employment-based insurance. For example, 23.2 percent of individuals who have no high school education have no insurance and 43.8 percent of these individuals have employment-based insurance, while only 4.2 percent of those with a college degree have no insurance and 85.4 percent have employment-based insurance.

It is also informative to examine how employer-provided insurance varies by the type of employer. Just over half of all firms (52.4 percent) offer some form of major health insurance plan. Firms in the manufacturing industry are most likely to offer insurance (68.4 percent), while those in agriculture, forestry, and fishing are least likely to offer it (21.6 percent). Large firms are much more likely to offer insurance than small firms are, so while only 52.4 percent of firms offer insurance, those firms that do offer insurance employ 85.7 percent of the workers in America. For example, 98.2 percent of firms with more than one thousand employees offer insurance, compared to only 63.5 percent of firms with ten to twenty-four employees and 32.9 percent of firms with less than ten employees.

There are three primary types of insurance plans that are offered by employers: fee-for-service plans, health maintenance organizations (HMOs), and preferred provider organizations (PPOs). Under a fee-for-service plan, health care providers are reimbursed based on the care they provide, with the patient usually required to pay either a deductible or co-payment (a percentage of the total cost of care). Fee-for-service plans offer patients the greatest flexibility, as there is often no restriction on what doctor a patient can see. Under HMO insurance, the HMO receives a fixed amount of money per person enrolled, regardless of the actual care provided. This provides an incentive for HMOs to consider not only the health benefits of providing a test or procedure, but also the financial costs. Patients are required to see only doctors who are included in the plan (unless the patient is referred to a specialist by a doctor in the HMO) in order to have insurance pay for the visit. PPOs are similar to HMOs in that patients have a certain network of doctors that they can see; however, patients do have greater flexibility because if they choose to see a doctor who is not a part of the network their insurance will still pay a portion of the cost of the visit.

Johnson and Crystal found that workers age fifty-three to sixty-four who are receiving employer-provided insurance are fairly evenly split between the three types of plans (29 percent have an HMO, 28 percent have a PPO, and 40 percent have fee-for-service). Firms with fewer employees (particularly less than fifteen employees) who offer health insurance are more likely to offer fee-for-service than either a HMO or PPO. While some employers offered employees the choice of more than one type of plan, less than half of those covered by employer-provided insurance had such a choice (42 percent) and most of those who did have a choice were in large firms or were making high hourly wages. The amount that employees had to contribute towards premiums (cost-sharing) was very similar across all three types of plans.

The effects of employer-provided health insurance on work and retirement decisions

The near-elderly face important decisions about work and retirement. While almost three-quarters of individuals between the ages of fifty-five and sixty-one were employed in 1996, less than half of those age sixty-two to sixty-four were working, and many were only working part-time. Some of this early retirement is by choice, but some of it is because of declining health status or employer cutbacks. Almost one-third of the near-elderly that were not working in 1996 reported illness or disability as the reason they were not working. (The breakdown of those not working was: 47.2 percent retirement, 30.4 percent ill or disabled, 18.9 percent caring for home or family, 1.5 percent could not find work, and 2 percent other factors.)

Since the majority of individuals receive health insurance from their employers, leaving the labor force before age sixty-five (the age at which an individual becomes eligible for Medicare) may result in a loss of health insurance coverage. Fewer than 40 percent of large employers offered health coverage for retirees in 1998, compared to 60 to 70 percent during the 1980s. In addition, retirees often have to share the cost of employer-provided insurance by paying a higher premium than workers; in 1995 a retired worker's contribution to employer-provided health insurance was, on average, $2,340$655 more per year than the contribution of active workers. For individuals who do not receive employer-provided health care if they retire, purchasing insurance in the private market is often quite expensive. A General Accounting Office survey of selected health insurance companies found that a healthy sixty-four year old male can expect to pay between $100 and $300 per month more in premiums than a healthy twenty-five year old male, while an older male with high health risks may pay between $300 and $600 more per month than his younger, healthy counterpartif the high-risk man can find an insurance company that will offer him any coverage at all. As a result, older workers who would like to retire may find that the loss of health insurance prevents them from being able to retire.

There have been some government regulations that attempt to ease the burden for those who lose their employer-provided insurance, either because they choose to retire early, have health conditions that necessitate their early retirement, or lose their job for other reasons. The Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985, often referred to as COBRA, allows workers and their families that have left jobs providing health insurance to continue to purchase the group policy for up to eighteen months. However, the employee must pay the entire premium amount plus a 2 percent administrative fee. Another major piece of legislation, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), helps to ease the transition if an individual changes jobs or switches from employer-provided health care to individually purchased health care. HIPAA limits insurance company exclusions for pre-existing conditions, prohibits discrimination against employees based on health status, and guarantees that individuals who have been receiving health insurance are able to purchase individual insurance policies (although it does not limit the premiums the insurance company can charge for the policy).

Despite these government efforts to make it easier for workers to switch jobs or retire early by removing barriers related to health insurance, numerous studies find that having employer-provided health insurance has a large impact on the retirement and work decisions of the near-elderly. Bridgette Madrian and Nancy Dean Beaulieu (1998) reviewed nine economic studies that used different data sets and methodologies and found that having retiree health benefits or the option of purchasing continuing coverage (such as COBRA) significantly increases the likelihood than an individual will retire early. For example, one of these studies, by Jonathan Gruber and Madrian, found that the availability of continuing coverage (through COBRA and various state laws that applied prior to COBRA) could explain as much as 60 percent of the rise in retirement for males fifty-five to sixty-four years old during the 1980s. However, while legislation such as COBRA and HIPAA may give the near-elderly more choices for when to retire, having health insurance tied to employers may still provide a large barrier to job changes or early retirements. Jeannette Rogowski and Lynn Karoly (2000) found that older male workers (in their late fifties and early sixties) with health benefits that continue after retirement are 68 percent more likely to retire than those who have employer-based coverage that only covers current workers.

Major legislation affecting employer-provided health insurance

Both COBRA and HIPPA are amendments to a previous piece of legislation on retirement and pensions, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA). As was discussed above, one concern about having health insurance tied to employment is that workers may lose their insurance coverage if they change jobs, retire, or lose their job for any reason. In response to this, COBRA was enacted in 1986 to help workers and their families continue to receive group health care coverage even if they are no longer at the same job.

There are conditions for eligibility for both the employer and the worker. The employer must offer health insurance benefits as a part of the worker benefit package and employ more than twenty employees. The worker or family member must have lost coverage of employee-provided group health insurance for one of the following qualifying events: voluntary or involuntary termination of employment for any reason other than gross misconduct; a reduction of hours of work for the employee, the employee became eligible for Medicare but wants to continue coverage for a spouse or dependent, a divorce or legal separation from a covered employee, death of a covered employee, or an individual is no longer a dependent child of the employee.

Individuals who meet the employer and employee requirements above may choose to purchase the group health insurance the employer had provided for a period of eighteen months if the qualifying event is a change in employment, or thirty-six months if the qualifying event is a change in family structure. The individual may be required to pay the entire premium for coverage plus a 2 percent administrative fee (a total of 102 percent of the premium price) as well as paying whatever deductibles or co-insurance that are part of the insurance plan. Individuals who want to use COBRA must notify their employer within sixty days of becoming eligible for coverage.

COBRA provides an opportunity for workers to continue to receive health insurance as the bridge between jobs, or to retire prior to age sixty-five. Despite this, studies find that only a small proportion of the near-elderly use COBRAonly 21 percent of those who become eligible for COBRA enroll. However, the rate is higher for those who become eligible because a spouse became eligible for Medicare, with 60 percent electing to participate in COBRA. In addition, only 10 percent of the near-elderly who use COBRA use it for the entire eighteen (or thirty-six) month period, with the average length of use being only one year. Part of the reason for the low take-up rates may be the cost of coverage. While COBRA limits that the premiums for a policy be at the same price as the employer pays, there is no longer an employer subsidy of premiums. The General Accounting Office reports that the average total annual premium for employer-provided health coverage is $3,820, a potentially large financial strain for a retiree or someone between jobs. (For more information on the regulations for COBRA, see the U.S. Department of Labor publication Health Benefits Under the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act ; for more information on the use of COBRA see chapter five of the General Accounting Office publication Insurance Access for 55- to 64-Year Olds. )

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) is designed to make it easier for people to change jobs without losing health coverage. HIPAA limits exclusions for pre-existing conditions, prohibits discrimination in enrollment and in premiums charged to employees in group health plans (such as employer-provided health care) based on their health status, and guarantees renewability and availability of individual health insurance plans for people not covered by group plans provided they have exhausted their other insurance options.

Many individuals may be hesitant to switch jobs or insurance plans for fear that current health problems will not be covered due to preexisting conditions clauses in insurance policies. HIPAA seeks to reduce this constraint by limiting health insurance exclusions for pre-existing conditions. If an individual has had prior medical problems but has not received medical advice, diagnosis, care, or treatment for the condition during the six months prior to enrollment in a health insurance plan, the plan cannot exclude coverage for the condition. In addition, if there is a pre-existing condition during the six months prior to enrollment, the insurance company can only exclude coverage for the condition for a maximum of twelve months if an individual enrolled in a plan as soon as he or she was eligible for the plan, or for eighteen months if the individual enrolled in the plan at a date later than the eligibility date. The twelve (or eighteen) month period can be shortened if an individual is switching from one insurance plan to another insurance plan, since the length of time the individual received the earlier insurance coverage counts towards the twelve (or eighteen) month time limit, provided that there is not a break in insurance coverage of more than sixty-three days. (For example, if someone has been receiving employer-provided health insurance for the previous eight months and then decides to purchase a different insurance policy, as long as the new policy is purchased within sixty-three days of when the earlier policy ended, then the waiting period for preexisting conditions with the new policy will only be four months because the individual will receive eight months of credit toward the twelve-month limit.)

The nondiscrimination requirements in HIPAA prevent an individual from losing group health insurance coverage, being denied coverage, or having to pay higher premiums because of health-related factors. For example, a group health-insurance policy cannot require an individual to pass a physical before becoming eligible for coverage, as this would be considered discriminating on eligibility based on health-related factors. Nor can a group insurance policy require that individuals who have certain health conditions, such as diabetes or HIV, pay a higher premium. (However, insurance companies are able to determine what types of coverage they will provide for various health problems. For example, a health insurance company can have a policy that they will not provide coverage for heart transplants or experimental drugs, provided these benefit restrictions apply to all individuals covered by the insurance policy.)

The final primary area HIPAA seeks to address is the availability of individual health insurance policies for those who do not have access to group policies. If an individual has had coverage for at least eighteen months, has exhausted COBRA coverage or is not eligible for COBRA, has no other insurance coverage and is not eligible for any government health plan such as Medicare or Medicaid, and did not lose group coverage eligibility because of fraud or nonpayment of premiums, then the individual cannot be denied the purchase of an individual insurance policy. However, while HIPAA guarantees access to an individual policy, it does not limit the premium that insurance companies can charge. Some have considered this to be a drawback of the law, since individual policies may be offered at premiums that make them prohibitively costly. (For further information on HIPAA see the U.S. Department of Labor publications Questions and Answers: Recent Changes in Health Care Law and Pension and Health Care Coverage. . .Questions and Answers for Dislocated Workers. In addition, a good Internet source for government information on health-related questions and relevant issues is www.healthfinder.gov)


For many older Americans, health insurance and employment are very closely tied. The majority of the near-elderly receive health insurance coverage as a benefit from their employer, although economic theory indicates that the true cost of insurance is borne by the employee through lower wages. Having employers provide health insurance provides some tax benefits for employees, since health insurance benefits are not taxable, but it also introduces constraints on the work and retirement decisions of the near-elderly. With employer-provided benefits ending when an individual leaves a job, and a reduction in the percentage of employers who are offering health benefits to retirees, individuals under the age of sixty-five may find they lose their insurance coverage if they leave their job. Legislation such as COBRA and HIPAA has attempted to lessen this burden by allowing individuals to continue to purchase insurance from their former employers, reducing pre-existing condition limitations for insurance companies, and expanding the guarantee of access to group and individual insurance policies. However, until an individual reaches age sixty-five and is eligible for Medicare, health insurance coverage continues to be an important issue for aging Americans.

Kathryn Wilson

See also Economic Well-Being; Health Insurance, National Approaches; Medigap; Medicare; Retirement, Decision Making.


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