Counter decline in coverage with tax breaks for individuals - East Valley Tribune: Opinion

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Counter decline in coverage with tax breaks for individuals

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Posted: Saturday, October 4, 2003 11:24 pm

There was more grim news last week on the health-care front. The number of Americans lacking health insurance has increased by 5.7 percent to 43.6 million. While 15.2 percent of Americans were uninsured in 2002, 17.4 percent of Arizonans lacked coverage.

The Census Bureau, which released the statistics, said young adults and Hispanics were among those least likely to have insurance. Children and the elderly were most likely to be covered, thanks mainly to Medicaid and Medicare, respectively.

Biggest reason for the increasing gap in health coverage was employers dropping insurance as an employee benefit, according to the Census Bureau report.

A survey of Arizona companies conducted by the state Chamber of Commerce explains why: Rising costs. And nearly half of Arizona companies that kept their health benefits increased the employee share of premiums. Forty-five percent of employers surveyed also said they increased deductibles employees must pay before reimbursements kick in.

“The rise in health care premiums continues to be a significant concern to employers of all sizes throughout Arizona,” said James J. Apperson, the Arizona Chamber's president and CEO. “In many instances, employers are more concerned about rising health care costs than wage inflation.”

Clearly, something needs to be done. We believe the most sensible, effective and fiscally responsible solution is for Congress to extend to individuals and families the same tax break that businesses get on health insurance premiums.

Indeed, variations on this approach have the support of Republicans in Congress, but are vehemently opposed by Democrats who are holding out for government-provided coverage.

The problems that plague single-payer programs, such as those in Canada and the United Kingdom — mainly skyrocketing costs and rationed care — don't faze Democratic devotees of national health care. But average taxpayers and consumers should be wary. A program that affords consumers real choices while also expecting them to pay some of the costs of service would be the best way to close the coverage gap among workers who've lost, or are in danger of losing, coverage through their employers.

Such a program already exists. Indeed, it's the one that serves federal employees, including members of Congress. Insurance plans that meet certain government requirements can participate — and there are hundreds. Federal workers choose the plan that best meets their own or their family's needs.

There's real competition among plans, which helps keep costs down, and employees also can save on premiums by choosing plans with higher deductibles or that emphasize prevention programs.

Even some moderate Democrats, including presidential candidate Joe Lieberman, have indicated support for expanding the federal-employee-coverage concept to all Americans through a system of tax credits. Under various proposals, individuals or families could go it alone or organize coverage purchasing pools through trade unions, professional organizations or even churches.

Such a program would satisfy most Americans' desire to have some control over, as well as responsibility for, their health care — rather than having government call all the shots.

It's time for Congress to head off the looming health coverage crisis and expand insurance tax breaks to individuals and families. It would provide all Americans with coverage options members of Congress themselves now enjoy.

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