The Current and Projected Taxpayer Shares of US Health Costs

By David U. Himmelstein, MD, and Steffie Woolhandler, MD, MPH
American Journal of Public Health, Published online ahead of print January 21, 2016

Objectives:  We estimated taxpayers’ current and projected share of US health expenditures, including government payments for public employees’ health benefits as well as tax subsidies to private health spending.

Methods:  We tabulated official Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services figures on direct government spending for health programs and public employees’ health benefits for 2013, and projected figures through 2024. We calculated the value of tax subsidies for private spending from official federal budget documents and figures for state and local tax collections.

Results:  Tax-funded health expenditures totaled $1.877 trillion in 2013 and are projected to increase to $3.642 trillion in 2024. Government’s share of overall health spending was 64.3% of national health expenditures in 2013 and will rise to 67.1% in 2024. Government health expenditures in the United States account for a larger share of gross domestic product (11.2% in 2013) than do total health expenditures in any other nation.

Conclusions:  Contrary to public perceptions and official Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services estimates, government funds most health care in the United States. Appreciation of government’s predominant role in health funding might encourage more appropriate and equitable targeting of health expenditures.

From the Discussion

Americans pay the world’s highest health-related taxes. Yet many perceive that US health care financing system is predominantly private, in contrast to the universal tax-funded health care systems in nations such as Canada, France, or the United Kingdom. By 2024, government expenditures in the United States are expected to account for more than two thirds of national health spending. This is nearly the same proportion as in Canada, where official figures put government’s share at 70.7% (although this figure excludes modest tax subsidies for supplemental private coverage).

Public funds help the vast majority of Americans pay for care, but these funds flow through many different spigots. The funding streams for the poor, the elderly, veterans, family planning, and public sector workers are visible and hotly debated. Meanwhile, the hundreds of billions in tax subsidies that disproportionately benefit wealthier Americans have drawn far less public attention.

Although taxpayers fund the vast majority of health spending, overall priorities for this funding are rarely discussed. Appreciation of the magnitude of government funding might encourage more explicit, appropriate, and equitable targeting of these expenditures as components of a total health budget.

http://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/abs/10.2105/AJPH.2015.302997

We often hear that we cannot afford the taxes to pay for a single payer national health program – an improved Medicare for all. Yet we are already paying most of the taxes that would be required; it’s just that they are relatively obscure and thus not recognized by most taxpayers.

By 2024, government expenditures will pay for more than two-thirds of national health spending (up from 64.3% in 2013). “Government health expenditures in the United States account for a larger share of gross domestic product (11.2% in 2013) than do total health expenditures in any other nation,” according to this study. Our government health expenditures alone are more than both government and private health expenditures in any other nation. We are paying for a national health program, but we are not getting it.

Most people are aware of the insurance premiums and out of pocket expenses that they and their employers pay for health care, so they tend to think that most health care spending is private. They are aware of the payroll deduction for Medicare, but they do not tend to consciously connect other taxes, especially income taxes, with expenditures for Part B and Part D Medicare, Medicaid, CHIP, the VA system and other government health programs. Also, totally out of mind is the portion of personal and corporate income taxes that help pay for government health programs – taxes that are built into the pricing of consumer goods and services (not to mention that the cost of employee health benefit programs is also built into consumer prices). (This may be double counting for the tax tally, but higher health spending in the U.S. does pass on opaque employer plan health costs to the consumer.) And one of the largest silent taxes is the tax expenditure (tax subsidies) on the federal, state and local level that help pay for private, employer-sponsored health plans. Also, we are paying, through taxes, for most of the health benefits offered to federal, state and local government employees.

The roughly $300 billion we pay for tax expenditures for employer-sponsored health plans (will be over $500 billion by 2024) is a prime example of how dysfunctional our health care financing is. The subsidies are credited in direct proportion to income – the higher a person’s income, the greater the subsidy. That is really unfair to lower-income individuals and families who may be paying the same insurance premium, directly or indirectly through forgone wage increases, as the higher-income employees do, but at a greater dollar amount than those with higher incomes after the subsidy is applied, and at a much greater percentage of income. This is a highly regressive tax policy.

The point is, we are already spending our taxes on the health care system, and we can do it much more equitably through a well-designed single payer program. Not only would we increase transparency, we would also reduce inefficient spending by eliminating the private insurance industry, saving more in premiums than would be the increase in taxes. The next time someone says that we cannot afford the taxes for a single payer system – clue him or her in. Let everyone know that it is time to demand much greater value for the enormous amount of taxes that we are already paying for health care.