4/21/2014

Would you buy a $29,000 a year health insurance plan?

The tiny town of Corte Madera, CA, makes up for what it lacks in size and population, roughly 4 square miles with 9,425 residents, in its exorbitant government compensation packages. City government has approximately 43 full time employees with the average compensation package coming in at over $170,000.
That means every man, woman and child in Corte Madera pays $778.41 to fund just 43 positions.
A disproportionate number of these employees are firefighters. Amazingly, it’s routine for fire chiefs in California to earn well over $275,000 in total compensation.

For instance, the fire chief in nearby San Rafael, population 57,713, earned $294,119.45 in 2012 total compensation, but it is quite surprising to see that such a small town employs three Battalion Chiefs with compensation packages around $294,000, $293,000, and $275,000. Then there’s the Director of Emergency Services who raked in over $313,000 in compensation in 2012.

This is just some of the information that is now available on TransparentCalifornia.com, a database of over 2 million public employee records that is searchable by name, job title and jurisdiction. Transparent California is provided by the California Public Policy Center as a public service and allows citizens to find out what public employees actual make, not what they or others claim they make.

Inflated compensation packages in Corte Madera don’t just come from high salaries, but from tens of thousands of dollars in benefits that are often hidden from the public eye. In Corte Madera, several city employees received health insurance policies that cost the government $20,894 a piece. This is hardly an isolated incident.

In the Contra Costa Community College School District, over 150 employees are receiving medical plans that cost over $25,000 a year. The school district’s highest priced plans top out at over $29,000 a year!
This hurts taxpayers in two ways. The first is obvious — funding for $20,000+ premiums comes in part from taxes collected from people without health care of their own. The second effect is more subtle, but well worth noting.

When you multiply sky-high premiums across by the one million-plus health insurance plans provided by California governments, the result of this systemic overpaying for health insurance is that the price of health insurance is driven higher than it would have otherwise been.

This phenomenon is similar to how increasing the demand for higher education through federal aid and student loans has precipitated a dramatic increase in tuition over the last several decades. The fundamental part of the demand for a good, any good, is the value consumers place on it; as demonstrated by the amount of money they are willing to part with for purchasing said good.

When consumers become less sensitive to the cost of a good, the natural tendency of producers will be to increase the price, as producers are in the profit-maximization business! A crude way of explaining how the price of a good is determined would be to say that producers will charge as much as the market will bear. A market consisting of actors who are funded with other people's money are, on average, going to be willing to pay more for the same good than those who are using their own money.

Given the number of government employees purchasing healthcare plans in our real world economy, it is safe to conclude that the cost of healthcare plans are going to continue to rise much higher than they would in a pure market based economy. Just as college tuition's dramatic increase in price would grind to a screeching halt if consumers had to bear the full cost (eliminating federal aid and government loans) the same principle applies in this case. The astute reader may note that the current tax structure governing employer-provided healthcare (for all employers, not just government) contributes to this effect as well - increasing the demand for a good by reducing the degree of price sensitivity demonstrated by the purchaser.

The problem is much greater than singling out the handful of agencies that are the worst offenders, however. As Dr. Thomas E. Woods documented in his book, Rollback, the artificially inflated costs of a good make us all poorer in both direct and indirect ways. Not only are we, on the margin, less likely to purchase as much health care coverage as we otherwise would have, this de-facto subsidy in the form of a government purchaser reduces the need for the producer to compete in the normal market-based ways — improving the quality of the product offered and/or lowering the price. This means that the quality of healthcare that presently exists is of a lower quality than it otherwise would have been.

What Transparent California reveals is that taxpayers pay twice — initially by paying for the public employee's compensation and again when they go out to buy their own good (in this case, health insurance) where they are met with artificially inflated higher prices.

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