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'Cadillac' tax could diminish union health plans

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Health plans obtained through union collective bargaining agreements often include much more generous benefits than other employer-sponsored plans. But such benefits are likely to be pared down as the Affordable Care Act's excise tax nears, a new study in Health Affairs contends.

That excise tax, often called the “Cadillac” tax, will go into effect Jan. 1, 2018. A 40% tax will be levied on every dollar of total premiums paid above $10,200 for individual health plans and $27,500 for family plans.

Policymakers included the Cadillac tax in the ACA as a way to raise revenue to fund the law. The Congressional Budget Office estimates it will bring in $120 billion between 2018 and 2024.

But the tax also was viewed as a way to reduce the number of health plans that have little cost-sharing and premium contributions, which some argue contribute to the overuse of healthcare. President Barack Obama has been quoted as saying the excise tax will discourage “these really fancy plans that end up driving up costs.” Lavish executive-level health plans and collegiate benefit packages, like Harvard University's, have been oft-cited targets. However, many collectively bargained policies fall into the Cadillac bracket as well.

The Health Affairs study, published Monday, sought specifics about what kind of health benefit packages unions provide for employees. People with union plans have lesser out-of-pocket obligations and don't pay as much per month toward their premium as others with employer-based insurance, but the surprise was “the magnitude of the differences for certain things,” said Jon Gabel, a healthcare fellow at NORC at the University of Chicago and one of the study's authors.

For instance, families in collectively bargained plans paid about $828 per year toward their premium, or about $69 per month, according to the study's surveyed data. That compared to $4,565 for the average employer-sponsored family plan, or about $380 per month, according to 2013 data from the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Cost-sharing requirements also were less onerous in union health plans, the study found. The average annual in-network deductible for an individual in a collectively bargained plan was $203. The average deductible at other employer-based plans was almost six times higher at $1,135.

Although the federal government is considering some flexibility for “high risk” unionized occupations such as miners and construction workers, many employers are looking to get ahead of the excise tax by slimming down benefits.

“For those who are fortunate to have a Cadillac plan right now, it's probably not going to be so comprehensive in the future,” Mr. Gabel said. However, he said, reduced benefits should lead to increased wages to offset higher cost-sharing.

Tom Leibfried, a health care lobbyist for the AFL-CIO, a federation of 56 unions, calls the Cadillac tax “a misnomer” because union plans apply to middle-class Americans with modest wages. The issue should not be about the generosity of health coverage, but rather whether the coverage is appropriate for people based on the health care costs in their geography, he said.

“Trying to control utilization in that way really does amount to a cost-shift,” Mr. Leibfried said. “This is really a middle-class problem.”

Higher compensation supplanting lost benefits is not a sure thing either, Mr. Leibfried said. Indeed, wages and salaries have been mostly stagnant the past decade, barely edging out inflation even as health benefits shrink.

Bob Herman writes for Modern Healthcare, a sister publication of Business Insurance.