Coase Colored Glasses
Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution posted this nice piece on adverse selection today. BTW, we on the job health care benefits near the end of WWII when a government mandated wage freeze made it impossible to compete for workers by offering higher wages. And because people are not just pieces on a chess board (remember Adam Smith's example in The Theory of Moral Sentiments), employeers found a non-wage way to compete--health insurance. I will blog another time about the problems of third-party payers. For now, enjoy Alex's post:
Wages for low-wage workers have been flat in recent years but health care costs have been increasing. For a company like Wal-Mart, which pays many of its workers modest wages but does offer a reasonable health insurance plan, this is an invitation to adverse selection. As the value of the wage component of the Wal-Mart benefit package has declined relative to the value of the health insurance component Wal-Mart has attracted more workers who want the job for the health benefits, i.e. sicker workers. Reed Abelson writing in the NYTimes notes:
The Wal-Mart work force reflects a growing fear of many employers that the people who work for them are increasingly at risk for health problems. Many of Wal-Mart's employees are obese, the company says, and a result is rapidly rising numbers of cases of diabetes or heart disease. The prevalence of these diseases among Wal-Mart employees is increasing much faster than the national average, it says.
"The low-income population generally is not as healthy and does not engage as much in preventive care," said Diane Rowland, executive director of the Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured. A risk that a company like Wal-Mart faces, especially when it competes with smaller retailers that offer no insurance at all, Ms. Rowland said, is attracting too many workers who want the job primarily for the health coverage.
Wal-Mart's health care costs are rising faster than their revenues. Other companies are trying to shift some of the cost of health care onto their workers but Wal-Mart's workers are already paying more than the national average so Wal-Mart may try to reverse adverse selection by adjusting their work and benefit package. An internal memo suggests that:
...the company could require all jobs to include some component of physical activity, like making cashiers gather shopping carts. It also recommends redesigning and expanding benefits to appeal to a different type of worker, someone more interested in buying a home, say, than in getting health insurance.
Wal-Mart will probably be pilloried for this sort of thinking but you can hardly blame them when the workers are engaging in almost the identical actions in reverse. The more fundamental problem is the tying of insurance to work, a problem for which I am afraid there no win-win solution.