Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Managing local government health care costs: The ambiguous incentives of federal health care reform

Recent local government and school district budget deliberations have honed in on deep and often contentious modifications to health care benefits. Many have asked how far local governments will go in reducing benefits now that they have been given greater flexibility to pare down employee health care costs without having to collectively bargain with most unions. These questions likely will continue and become more dynamic with the phasing in of the federal health care reform law.

In 2014, federal law will require all individuals to have health insurance, with new government-subsidized health care exchanges offering an alternative option for small businesses and individuals who are not eligible for Medicare, Medicaid or affordable employer coverage. States can allow large employers to participate in these exchanges in 2017.

How large employers, both public and private, will react to the federal health care reform law is a big unknown. Besides taking advantage of lower cost plans provided through exchanges, some speculate that employers may also consider dropping coverage altogether.

The wild card is a “play or pay” penalty imposed on large employers for not providing affordable employee health care coverage. Large public and private employers who fail to do so will be subject to a $2,000 annual penalty beginning in 2014 for each of their employees, provided that any of their employees have a household income low enough to qualify for a federal subsidy to help pay for coverage within an exchange. Employers offering coverage that pays less than 60% of expenses would face similar penalties, but only for those employees eligible for the federal subsidy. This applies to even seasonal employees that work full-time hours in any given month, a population that currently does not get health coverage in most local governments.

With many local governments paying annual premiums of $20,000 or more for family plans, and picking up more than 80% of plan costs, a $2,000 penalty would be a bargain. Consequently, some argue that many local governments will drop or significantly reduce employer-based coverage.

A recent Urban Institute report challenges this perspective, arguing that for any large employer such a shift would wrongly ignore market realities and the dynamics of worker preferences. While the Institute's report notes that exchanges could better suit some lower-income individuals because of the subsidies for which they are eligible, employers still need to maintain an edge over competitors to retain and attract highly skilled and higher paid employees. Those individuals would not receive subsidies and their share of the exchange plan costs would be approximately 30%, as compared to the typical 15% in employer-based plans.

The report also argues that market competition will force employers who decide to drop health insurance to fully cover the lost benefit with increased wages. On top of that, the employer would still face the $2,000 penalty for each worker.

Do these considerations hold true for local government employers in particular? One factor that has been downplayed is that local governments and their competitors will likely be pressured to contemplate significant changes to employee compensation. Consequently, the market pressure to maintain health care benefits in order to remain competitive may be diminished as all employers continue to recalibrate compensation. Nevertheless, a key question is how local governments will balance the reality of restricted resources and the need to preserve critical public services with their equally compelling need to attract and retain quality workers.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Assembling the parts

In a 2006 report on the City of Milwaukee’s economic development efforts, the Public Policy Forum concluded that “unlike the vast majority of its peer cities, the City of Milwaukee has neglected to sit down with stakeholders and map out an economic development plan. Absent a plan or guiding vision, one is left to conclude that the City has and will continue to engage in economic investments, no matter how worthy, in an ad-hoc fashion.”

Five years later, the economic development landscape in Milwaukee has changed dramatically. Privately-funded entities such as the Milwaukee 7 and Milwaukee Water Council have become prominent players on the economic development scene, suggesting a level of public-private teamwork that had been found lacking in 2006. Nevertheless, important questions remain regarding the precise roles and responsibilities of the various players in carrying out citywide economic development efforts and in formulating the city’s economic development vision.

In a new report released today - "Assembling the Parts: An examination of Milwaukee's economic development landscape" - the Forum attempts to address those questions.

The report commends City and private sector leaders for adding “strength and focus” to the community’s economic development efforts, citing city government’s successful efforts to spur revival in the Menomonee Valley, the ground-breaking work of business-led groups to build industry clusters and support entrepreneurship, and the bold plans of university leaders to establish world-class research institutions. The report also suggests, however, that while we’re assembling the right parts, we may be missing the blueprint needed to build a well-oiled machine.

Indeed, one of the report's key findings is the continuing lack of a true citywide strategic economic development plan that establishes clear economic development priorities, links those priorities to specific strategic objectives, measures each objective with performance indicators and benchmarks, and names the entities to be held accountable for each objective. It cites examples from other cities in which such planning is being used “to meaningfully enhance collaboration and coordination, create new tools, and foster accountability and innovation.”

The report concludes by stating that Milwaukee’s elected and business leaders “should be proud of their efforts to build an economic development infrastructure that has assembled many of the parts needed for success.” It asks, however, whether they now “have the patience, skill and camaraderie to transform those parts into a cohesive and strategically organized whole.”

The full report can be accessed here, and the media release here.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Income Inequality in Metro Milwaukee

The Occupy Wall Street demonstrations have sparked a public debate over income inequality that has spread across the nation and beyond. In Milwaukee, where the city’s poverty rate has ranked among the nation’s highest for several years, the issue of income inequality is a familiar one. Could it be, however, that the Milwaukee metropolitan area actually has slightly less income inequality than the U.S. as a whole, and if so, what does that mean?

A new report from the U.S. Census Bureau analyzes and ranks states, metro areas, and even neighborhoods in terms of how evenly income is divided among the population. The method used to rank each place, called the Gini measure, is a scale from zero to one in which a measure of zero means incomes are totally equal throughout a population, and a measure of one means 100% of that population’s income is concentrated in one household. Notably, while the Gini measure captures how income is distributed, it does not take into account factors such as the relative wealth of a population or the cost of living of each place.

According to the Census Bureau study, Wisconsin has one of the lowest levels of income inequality among U.S. states. The level of inequality within the Milwaukee metropolitan statistical area (MSA), which includes the counties of Milwaukee, Ozaukee, Washington, and Waukesha, is below that of the nation as a whole and in the middle of the pack when compared with the 50 other metro areas in the U.S. with populations of at least one million. Below is a breakdown of select metro areas on the list, including those at the extremes and Milwaukee’s regional peers. Each metro area’s poverty rate and percentage of households earning at least $200,000 are also included on the chart.

Income inequality in U.S. metro areas with populations over one million, 2005-2009 (51 total)

It’s difficult to determine how to interpret the Gini measures by themselves. Because of the small difference in Gini measures found between metro areas at the extreme ends of the scale, for example, metro Milwaukee does not appear to be much different from the New York or Salt Lake City metro areas. Indeed, all of the metro areas measured fall within what appears to be a relatively narrow range.

One might logically theorize that metro areas with higher Gini measures would have higher percentages of households at the extremes – both very high-income and very low-income. Based on the data on poverty and high-income households in the chart, the Milwaukee MSA has both a lower poverty rate and a lower percentage of high-income households compared with the New York metropolitan area and the U.S. as a whole, while the State of Wisconsin has lower rates than metro Milwaukee for both categories. But perhaps most interestingly, the combined percentages of people at the extremes (poverty rate plus percentage of high-income households) follows the Gini measures almost perfectly, as shown in the chart’s final column.

While these data invoke more questions than answers, several observations can be gleaned with regard to metro Milwaukee. First, while poverty in the city of Milwaukee is unacceptably high, the poverty rate for Milwaukee’s MSA is relatively average compared with other metro areas. Thus, poverty may be less concentrated in the central city of other metro areas compared with metro Milwaukee.

Second, the Milwaukee MSA has a relatively low percentage of high-income households compared with other metro areas and the nation as a whole. In addition to the data on the above chart, a recent study by the Brookings Institution shows that metro Milwaukee is not among the 54 U.S. metro areas whose share of very high-income households (>$200,000/year) exceeds their share of all households. Some might argue that metro Milwaukee’s relatively low level of high-income households puts us at an economic disadvantage because high-income households are those most likely to create desperately-needed jobs.

Third, if income inequality is at undesirable levels in general throughout the U.S., metro Milwaukee is not significantly different. Current research has shown that the richest 20% of Americans own approximately 84% of the nation’s wealth, and that Americans across divisions of race, gender, income, and political affiliation all would prefer less inequality.

Finally, since the data used in the Census Bureau report are from 2005-2009, both pre-recession and peak recession years are included. With the economy continuing to struggle, it will be interesting to see how these numbers change over time.