Author: eric fruits ph.d.

Health Care Tax Would Hurt Middle Class

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

Many Oregonians are now spending as much on health insurance and health care as they are on their mortgage payments. The Oregon legislature recently passed House Bill 2391 (signed by Governor Kate Brown) that will spike these costs even higher.

The law provides $605 million in new funds to the Oregon Health Authority. The money is meant to fill the fiscal hole made by the state’s costly expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Most of the money will come from taxes on health insurance providers, hospitals, managed care providers, and insurance provided through the Public Employee Benefits Board (PEBB).

Two of Oregon’s largest insurance providers on the ACA exchange have been approved for double-digit premium increases: Kaiser at almost 15 percent and Providence at more than 10 percent. For a 40-year-old with a Silver ACA plan, that amounts to an increased cost of about $500 a year.

The law explicitly allows the new taxes on health insurance providers to be passed on to consumers. With these new taxes, that Silver ACA plan will cost about $625 more in 2019 than in 2018. It’s not just 40-year-olds who will get hit with the insurance tax. Nearly 12,000 college students who buy their own health care as a requirement of attending a public college will pay the tax. Small group employers—such as the local coffee shop, auto repair, or bookstore—will pay the new tax.

Taxes on hospitals will raise the costs of care across the board. Emergency room visits, surgeries, diagnostics, and even childbirth will be hit with this new sales tax on hospital services. The cost of these taxes also will be passed on in the form of higher deductibles and premiums. Even if you don’t go to the hospital, you will be paying the hospital tax through higher insurance prices.

Because of the tax on the PEBB, local governments and school districts will also pay higher prices to insure their employees. These higher costs will lead to further cuts in staffing and services. Oregon’s already crowded classrooms will almost certainly get more crowded as districts struggle to fund the PERS crisis and higher insurance costs.

Medicaid providers are also hit with the tax. Because they do not have the pricing flexibility of other providers, they will have a harder time passing on the higher costs to consumers. Instead, they likely will reduce payments to doctors, nurses, and staff. With reduced payments, these professionals may decide to get out of the Medicaid market, thereby worsening the current shortage of Medicaid providers.

The Oregon Health Authority reports it recently removed nearly 55,000 people from its Medicaid program, after the state found they no longer qualified or failed to respond to an eligibility check. State auditors said in May that each of these Medicaid enrollees costs Oregon, on average, about $430 per month, or more than $550 million a biennium. These new savings alone more than cover the legislature’s tax increases.

While nearly everyone will be hit with the cost of these taxes, Oregon’s middle-class families will be hit the hardest. The Census Bureau reports that more than half of Oregon’s uninsured are adults between the ages of 25 and 64 who are not in poverty. These middle-class Oregonians surely want health insurance but have been priced out of the market. According to estimates by the Kaiser Family Foundation, about half of the individuals buying insurance on the Obamacare exchange get no subsidies under the law. This has been called “the middle-class loophole of no help.” Adding the legislature’s new taxes will drive more of the middle class to take their chances with being uninsured. Is this really the state of health care we want for Oregon?

These taxes can be stopped. StopHealthCareTaxes.com is now collecting signatures to put Referendum 301 on the ballot, allowing voters to repeal about $320 million in new taxes on health insurance and health care. It would save the average household more than $200 a year in new taxes. Middle-class families will see even bigger savings. The referendum won’t stop the cost of health care from rising, but it will stop things from getting worse than they already are for Oregon’s middle class.


Eric Fruits, Ph.D. is an Oregon-based economist, adjunct professor at Portland State University, and Academic Advisor for Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. A version of this article appeared in The Portland Tribune on September 21, 2017.

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How Legislators Can Balance Oregon’s Budget—Without Raising Taxes

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

Despite an eight percent increase in general fund revenues, Governor Kate Brown and some lawmakers say Oregon is facing a $1.7 billion budget shortfall in the 2017-19 biennium. Nevertheless, the Governor has released a budget that expands entitlements while raising taxes, fees, and charges by nearly $275 million for the general fund alone.

Expanding programs while increasing taxes is something Oregon could do if it were a rich state. Oregon is not a rich state. Income for the average Oregonian is about nine percent lower than the national average, and the cost of living is 15 percent higher. In other words, the average Oregonian earns less but pays more for basic items than the average American. Oregon legislators and other policymakers must face the reality that the state simply cannot afford costly new or expanded programs.

My analysis published in Facing Reality: Suggestions to Balance Oregon’s Budget Without Raising Taxes (February 2017), by Cascade Policy Institute and Oregon Capitol Watch Foundation, identifies seven straightforward solutions to the state’s current budget crisis for savings of nearly $1.3 billion in the next biennium.* If all the solutions were implemented, none of the tax and fee increases outlined in the Governor’s budget would be necessary.

Governor Brown blames three-fifths of the budget crisis on Oregon’s decision to expand Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act. Policymakers undertook the expansion with full knowledge that the federal government would be shifting some of the costs of expansion to the state. Janelle Evans, budget director for the Oregon Health Authority, estimates these costs to the state’s general fund will be as much as $360 million in the next biennium. With many portions of the ACA likely to be reformed or replaced by this Congress, Oregon can see immediate budget savings by opting out of the Medicaid expansion now.

The skyrocketing costs of Oregon’s Public Employee Retirement System presents the biggest long-run challenge to balancing state and local government budgets. As reported in The Portland Tribune, the impact on the 2017-19 state budget is approximately $500 million because the state funds two-thirds of the operating costs of school districts, which will also be hit with the steep increase in PERS costs. In addition to the higher costs of PERS padded into the agency costs, the Governor’s budget includes a $100 million line item to support the state’s increased PERS costs.

Senate Bill 560 provides a reform that would cap at $100,000 the final average salary used to calculate Tier 1 and Tier 2 retirement benefits. The PERS actuary calculates this reform alone would save the state budget approximately $135 million in the 2017-19 biennium.

Oregon has the 12th highest pay in the U.S. for state employees. The Governor’s budget proposes increasing the state government workforce by 675 full-time-equivalent employees. This expansion of the public sector workforce would cost the state more than $120 million in additional compensation costs for the 2017-19 biennium. A halt on adding more state employees during this biennium would free up resources and ward off some of the pressure to increase taxes, fees, and charges.

In addition to these items, Oregon can face its budget reality by adopting targeted reductions already identified by the Department of Human Services, reforming the state’s cash assistance programs, saying “no” to the Governor’s wish to expand Medicaid to those who are not “legally present” in the state, and saying “no” to Measure 98’s unfunded high school education spending mandate.

State tax revenues are approaching all-time highs. Nevertheless, the state must face the budget reality that Oregonians do not have the resources to support ever-expanding spending programs that outpace our ability to pay for them.

 

* Solution Impact
Medicaid—opt out of ACA expansion $360 million
Cover All Kids—reject expansion $55 million
PERS—$100,000 cap $135 million
Department of Administrative Services—halt additional hiring $120 million
Department of Human Services—targeted reductions $321 million
Department of Human Services—cash assistance reforms $160 million
State School Fund—reject Measure 98 $139 million
Total $1,290 million

 


Eric Fruits, Ph.D. is an Oregon-based economist and adjunct professor at Portland State University. Fruits has been invited to provide analysis to the Oregon Legislature regarding the state’s tax and spending policies. His testimony regarding the economics of the Oregon public employee pension reforms was heard by a special session of the Oregon Supreme Court. A version of this article originally appeared in The Portland Tribune on February 23, 2017.

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Oregon Leaders Must Reject ACA’s Medicaid Expansion

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

Despite an eight percent increase in general fund revenues, Governor Kate Brown and some lawmakers say the State of Oregon is facing a $1.7 billion budget shortfall in the 2017-19 biennium. In her inaugural address, the governor blames more than $1 billion of the shortfall on the state’s choice to expand Medicaid and other taxpayer-funded insurance. The Census Bureau estimates that about one in four Oregonians are in the state’s Medicaid program.

In addition to the expansion provided by the Affordable Care Act, the governor seeks new state money to expand single-payer public insurance to those who are not “lawfully present” in the United States, under a program called Cover All Kids.

Although the federal government pays a large portion of the costs of Medicaid expansion, the state’s share of the costs is growing under the ACA. The huge costs of Medicaid mean even a small increase in Oregon’s share has big impacts on the state’s budget. State Senator Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, incoming co-chair of the Ways and Means Committee for Human Services indicates that about one-third of the deficit at the Oregon Health Authority comes from what she called a “minuscule” reduction in the federal match. This deficit is certain to grow as federal support for expansion shrinks over time, as outlined in the ACA.

The state has massively underestimated the costs of Medicaid expansion in Oregon. A 2013 report prepared for the state estimated that the Medicaid expansion would cost Oregon’s general fund $217 million in the upcoming 2017-19 biennium. Janelle Evans, budget director for the Oregon Health Authority, now estimates a cost to the state’s general fund of at least $353 million. For the federal government, the cost of Oregon’s Medicaid expansion will cost more than $3.5 billion over the next two years.

Oregon simply cannot afford the ACA’s Medicaid expansion and Governor Brown’s expensive new entitlement. Nationally, expansion costs and enrollment have grown much faster than projected. Previous expansions of the Medicaid program have resulted in crowding out, the process by which taxpayer funded Medicaid replaces private health insurance. These earlier expansions have seen crowd-out rates ranging from 15 percent to 50 percent, depending on the type of expansion. Not only does the expansion crowd out private insurance, government spending on the expansion crowds out funding for other state and national priorities, such as education, infrastructure, and defense.

In Congress, repeal of much of the ACA is imminent. Oregon Congressman Greg Walden, incoming chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, is working on a timeline for repealing major provisions of the health care law, including the expansion of Medicaid. In the absence of repeal, Congress should consider an enrollment freeze approach. A freeze would halt new enrollment while allowing current enrollees to stay in the program until their incomes climb above eligibility limits. It would be an intermediate step towards repeal with immediate benefits for taxpayers and current enrollees.

However repeal of the ACA rolls out, Oregon’s congressional delegation should be at the forefront of ending the Medicaid expansion as soon as possible. While Congress works through the details, Oregon can take steps in the upcoming legislative session to protect the state’s fragile finances. One first step would be to opt out of the ACA’s Medicaid expansion and reject Governor Brown’s proposal to expand coverage even further. As noted in the governor’s inaugural address, the state’s choice to expand Medicaid is the single largest source of the impending budget deficit. Rejecting the health care law’s expansion is the clearest path to fiscal solvency and financial responsibility.


Eric Fruits, Ph.D. is president and chief economist at Economics International Corp., an Oregon based consulting firm specializing in economics, finance, and statistics. He is also an adjunct professor of economics at Portland State University, an Academic Advisor to Cascade Policy Institute, and author of Cascade’s report, The Oregon Health Plan: A “Bold Experiment” That FailedThis article originally appeared in The Oregonian on January 27, 2017.

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“Streetcar Drives Development”―Portland’s Urban Legend

For much of human history, mass transit has had the utilitarian goal of quickly moving people from place to place. Even Portland’s early streetcars were designed with speed in mind.

Advertisements touted how quickly people could get around by streetcar. One ad from 1920 boasted that University Park in North Portland was only 20 minutes from downtown by streetcar. That works out to a speed of more than 15 miles an hour.

Times have changed. Modern streetcars have become the pleasure boats of public transit: flashy, expensive, and slow.

Today, Portland’s streetcars quietly glide through the streetscape at a leisurely pace. Portland’s new Central Loop covers 3.3 miles in about an hour and a half. At 2.5 miles an hour, that’s slower than most people walk.

If streetcars don’t improve transit times, then what do streetcars do?

Many ascribe the development of Portland’s heralded Pearl District to the streetcar. In truth the streetcar was more of an afterthought. The Pearl’s success began with a few pioneering developments that took advantage of historic building tax abatements to convert warehouses into condos. The success of these pioneering developments attracted other investments and more developments.

After these successes, an urban renewal area was created, and the streetcar came along a few years after the birth of the urban renewal area. Development made the streetcar possible, not the other way around.

It’s impossible to find a clear-cut example of where streetcars are the single factor driving development. It’s impossible because streetcars are always just one part of a complex development package. The packages can include roadway improvements, tax abatements, rezoning and environmental cleanup. There is no way to determine whether a streetcar system is just one of many factors that boost development potential or is a vital linchpin without which development would be impossible.

Supporters argue that streetcars and other rail projects provide a magic key that unlocks zoning and uses of an area. They point to the “condotopia” that grew out of the banks of the Willamette River in Portland’s South Waterfront urban renewal area, now served by a streetcar and an aerial tram.

As early as the mid-1990s, however, private developers had their eyes on Portland’s South Waterfront. Yet, every single effort was shot down or stifled by the city’s planning process. One development didn’t follow a city commissioner’s vision for an ideal street pattern. Another development would have exceeded the city’s maximum allowable building height at the time (35 feet, or about three stories).

Even so, Portland’s planning class continues to argue that the aerial tram and streetcar have magically unlocked the ability to build waterfront skyscrapers.

In reality, there is nothing magical about streetcars and trams. City commissioners held—and still hold—the keys to unlock an area’s development potential. If rail and tram expenditures had been invested in roadway improvements, the South Waterfront would be celebrating its 15th anniversary of redevelopment instead of suffering round after round of fire sale condo auctions.

It remains to be seen whether the streetcar’s Central Loop can breathe life into Portland’s Central Eastside, Convention Center, and Lloyd District. Large-scale rezoning to unlock development potential doesn’t need a streetcar. Investments in roadway improvements best serve the way the people actually travel, rather than the way we wish they would travel.

A streetcar by itself does nothing without these other key improvements.

Eric Fruits, Ph.D. is a Portland economist and an adjunct professor at Portland State University. He is a guest contributor at Cascade Policy Institute. This article originally appeared in The Portland Tribune.

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The Oregon Health Plan: A Policy Placebo

Cascade Commentary

The Oregon Health Plan: A Policy Placebo
by Eric Fruits

The Oregon Health Plan has been called a “bold experiment” designed to expand health insurance to Oregon’s low-income residents. Its promoters promised the impossible: To expand health insurance coverage while simultaneously controlling costs and fostering provider participation. These promises would be met by the explicit rationing of care through a prioritized list of conditions and treatments. However, like the experimental drug that performs no better than a placebo, Oregon’s bold experiment has produced results that are not significantly different from the outcomes seen by the U.S. as a whole. In this way, the experiment has failed.

Expanding coverage. When John Kitzhaber first proposed the Oregon Health Plan in the late 1980s, he claimed that nearly 20 percent of Oregonians did not have health insurance, a claim that state agencies have echoed ever since. Unbeknownst to them, however, their data was incorrect. Revised estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau show that between 1987 and 1989, only 14.5 percent of Oregonians were uninsured, a percentage that was not much different from the U.S. as a whole. Indeed, census data show that the rate of uninsured during the life of the Oregon Health Plan has not been significantly different from the U.S. as a whole. In the end, one cannot confidently conclude that the Oregon Health Plan had any significant and sustained impact on reducing the number of uninsured as a share of Oregon’s population.

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The Oregon Health Plan: A Policy Placebo

Cascade Commentary

The Oregon Health Plan: A Policy Placebo
By Eric Fruits, Ph.D

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The Oregon Health Plan has been called a “bold experiment” designed to expand health insurance to Oregon’s low-income residents. Initially, the experiment had bipartisan support. The plan’s chief architect was John Kitzhaber, a Democratic state senator turned governor who is currently running for a third term as governor. The plan’s chief advocate in Washington, D.C. was Republican Senator Bob Packwood. Its promoters promised the impossible: To expand health insurance coverage while simultaneously controlling costs and fostering provider participation. These promises would be met by the explicit rationing of care through a prioritized list of conditions and treatments. The rationing plan generated international headlines, and the rollout of the plan prompted physicians and politicians from around the world to visit Oregon to see the bold experiment in action. However, like the experimental drug that performs no better than a placebo, Oregon’s bold experiment has produced results that are not significantly different from the outcomes seen by the U.S. as a whole. In this way, the experiment has failed.

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Individual Accounts Can Save Medicare

Eric FruitsCascade Commentary

Click here to read the full report in PDF format

Summary:Medicare is a “pay-as-you-go” system in which today’s workers are taxed to pay for today’s spending. Unfortunately, demographics and economic reality make this model unsustainable. A pay-your-own-way system of individual accounts will ensure that today’s workers receive high quality medical care when they become tomorrow’s retirees. (more…)

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Health Care Overhaul: Congress Can Learn From the Costly Mistakes of the States

Eric FruitsQuickPoint!

While many members of Congress have been heading to their home districts to face town halls filled with concerned citizens, some Americans’ thoughts have drifted overseas. As we find ways to overhaul the U.S. health care system, pundits have pointed to other countries’ experiences with government-run health care. Some say that Canada has the solution. Others look to the United Kingdom, France, Switzerland and even Cuba as a model for a U.S. overhaul. Little attention, however, has been paid to the lessons from several U.S. states. During the Congressional recess, I have crossed the country talking about the Oregon Health Plan while learning about the costly mistakes of other states’ experiences with government-run health care. (more…)

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Fiscal Impacts of Proposed Educational Tax Credits

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

Executive summary 
Currently, Oregon parents of public school children who need extra tutoring or other assistance are not reimbursed for that expense. In addition, many low-income parents or parents with children with disabilities cannot find public education alternatives that meet their children’s demands and cannot afford educational options available from private schools. In response to these gaps, Cascade Policy Institute proposes two tax credits to help support efforts to make educational opportunities more affordable to Oregon families.
Click here to read the full report in PDF format

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Tough Times Call for Smart Spending

Cascade Commentary

Summary

Oregon state revenues are now projected to be $1 billion short of paying for existing services in the next biennial budget, and the economic downturn is putting pressure on all levels of government. The State Legislature will be faced with the challenge of satisfying unlimited demands with limited resources. Smart Spending, rather than new taxes, will be one step on the path out of our current crisis. (more…)

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