03/03/2014 01:14 pm ET Updated May 03, 2014

The Simple Solution to Obamacare's Employer Mandate Problems

In the last month, two more misleading headlines -- one on lost jobs and the other on premiums for small businesses -- have further roiled the overheated debate about the impact of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) on business and jobs. The question of how to deal with our employer-based health system continues to provide fodder for attacks on Obamacare. And it has proven to be -- and promises to continue to be -- the basis for the most potent attacks against Republican proposals to replace the ACA. But in terms of policy, there is a simple solution, which would rationalize the contradictions in the Affordable Care Act and ease the way for the long-term goal shared on the left and right of separating health coverage from employment.

The general approach taken in the Affordable Care Act was to require most employers to provide coverage. The specific proposal in the final legislation, shaped by compromises with and pressure from both small and big business lobbying groups, required employers with more than the equivalent of 50 full-time workers to pay a portion of health coverage for employees who work 30 hours a week, or pay a fine. This is the employer mandate, which was delayed a year by the Obama administration and will be phased in starting in 2015.

The employer mandate does accomplish much of the prime goal of reform. Most employers have incentives to continue to provide coverage, or expand coverage. New coverage options are available for most people who do not get coverage at work, which was virtually all of the 50 million people who were uninsured when the ACA became law in 2010. People are not locked into jobs just because of health coverage, which was the real finding of the Congressional Budget Office report projecting 2.3 million people would retire or reduce their hours of work. Ending job lock opens up those hours to people who want to work and is a huge boon to entrepreneurship.

But the problems with the structure of the employer mandate are obvious. The law creates incentives for employers to keep workers' hours under 30. It also establishes the potential for a business with a growing number of employees, when it exceeds the 50-employee threshold, to suddenly have to pay for health coverage.

The existence of incentives to cut hours or limit employees does not at all mean that employers will adjust for them. The accusations that the ACA is creating a part-time economy are belied by the facts: part-time employment is going down as the economy accelerates. In addition, employers that are adding workers rapidly as their businesses grow are not going to stop expanding -- or establish dozens of very small corporations -- to avoid paying for health coverage. Still, we are seeing examples of some employers, including public employers and universities, limiting workers' hours to less than 30. Others, like Trader Joe's, are establishing different employment tracks for part and full time employees, with health care as a key factor. As this is all new -- with the mandate not yet in effect -- it is impossible to measure the future impact, but the incentives are certain to shape some business decisions.

There is a simple solution, one that was included in the version of the ACA enacted by the House in 2009. Employers that decide not to provide health coverage for their employees would be required to pay a percentage of payroll as a tax to cover health care, just like employers do now for FICA (Social Security and Medicare). Instantly, the cliff impact is gone, both in terms of hours and number of employees. Employers could either provide coverage to all employees, or pay for health coverage in the same manner as FICA, a regular cost of adding an employee, with a marginal increase in cost for each hour someone works. There is no advantage to hiring someone for less than 30 hours or keeping under 50 employees.

Paying a percentage of payroll also has another huge advantage over both the ACA and the current system of employer-provided coverage. Right now, the cost of health insurance premiums does not vary with an employee's income. This creates a much bigger disincentive to hiring lower-wage workers. For example, a $6,000-a-year policy is 20 percent of the wages of a $30,000 a year employee but only 5 percent of the pay of a $120,000 a year employee. Paying a percentage of payroll instead would make it much more affordable to hire low-and-middle income wage earners than it is now. And while it would make it more expensive to employ higher-wage workers, most employers with high-wage workforces already provide health coverage and would be likely to continue to do so, rather than pay the payroll tax. If they did choose to pay, the cost is more easily absorbed for high-wage employees. Besides, that is not where we have an employment problem in the U.S.

This solution mimics the structure of union-employer benefit funds, which are typically found in industries where workers have fluctuating hours. Under these "Taft-Hartley" funds, employers and workers pay into the fund based on the number of hours an employee works. The loudest opponents from the left of the employer mandate in the ACA have been unions whose members get health coverage through such funds now. The unions have said that the ACA encourages employers to stop paying into the funds, now that government will provide subsidies for many workers. But if the current employer mandate were replaced by a payroll tax, the status quo that has worked well for these funds would be maintained.

Historically, the biggest opponent of a payroll tax for coverage has been the small business lobby, which is why the ACA does not require small employers to provide coverage. That is why the House version of the ACA phased in the payroll contribution based on payroll size, with no contributions required for payrolls under $500,000, increasing gradually to an 8 percent contribution for payrolls over $750,000. This eases the burden on small employers.

Slowly, the employer-based health coverage system in the United States is dissolving. Over the past 30 years, the share of workers with ESI has shrunk from 70 percent to 57 percent. Recently we have seen employers who traditionally have wanted to take responsibility for structuring employee coverage begin to use private exchanges, in which their workers get a fixed amount of money to choose from a choice of health plans. These trends hasten the broadly shared goal of separating employment from health coverage.

As the debate over the ACA turns from repeal to fixing the law, progressives should make the payroll contribution proposal a central focus, our response to problems with the employer mandate. If enacted, as more employees choose to pay into the fund rather than provide their own coverage, we would move closer to ideal of a broad-based tax for coverage, not tied to an individual employer. And while a payroll tax is not progressive -- it is proportional -- it is much more progressive than the very regressive system we have now of fixed premiums regardless of income. The result would be evolution toward a relatively broadly based tax for health coverage, a key to making health coverage a right. 

Originally published on Next New Deal