The current political landscape—hyperpartisanship, legislative gridlock and GOP optimism of winning control of the House of Representatives in the midterm elections—will present challenges and opportunities for employee benefits administrators in the coming months.
“The current political environment is having an impact on the process of moving [President Biden’s policy] agenda through Congress. There are limitations in the process and this will impact the policies that can be enacted,” said Jim Klein, president of the American Benefits Council, in his Health & Benefits Leadership Conference keynote Wednesday entitled “What to Know About Benefits Policy in 2022.”
In the past, moderates in both parties in Congress helped advance consequential legislation, but those leaders have largely disappeared. Add to that the supermajority rule that requires 60 votes to pass legislation in the Senate, and the outlook for advancing important measures is more challenging than ever.
“There is a short window for Democrats to enact Biden’s policy agenda, and they are working with a razor-thin majority,” said Klein. “They only had two years [before the upcoming midterms] and are eager to move forward on what they want to accomplish.”
If the GOP does take control of one of the two chambers of Congress, Klein warned that the party will undo several Democratic-backed policies that impact employers, such as portions of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare), the American Rescue Plan and the forthcoming Build Back Better Act put forth by the Biden administration and passed in the House of Representatives. (On Tuesday, Democratic senators Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) expressed reservations about the current iteration of Build Back Better, which observers have said could kill the bill’s chances of passage.)
The legislation would mandate universal family leave and new penalties for unfair labor practices, among other provisions of note for employers. There were several provisions that didn’t make it into the plan, according to Klein. These include lowering the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 60, a public health insurance option to drive competition with private insurance in the marketplace and COVID relief that would include testing, vaccines and treatment.
Even if the measure were to pass before the 2022 midterm elections, this doesn’t mean it—or any other laws passed by Democrats—is safe. “When legislation is passed by one party, the other party has no ownership of it. We will see the pendulum swing back and forth,” Klein said.
This might not be terrible news for employees, many of whom say they aren’t seeking wholesale change to their benefits, health plans and retirement plans, according to surveys Klein cited. The version recently passed by the House included provisions aimed at lowering health costs and improving access to care and public health as well as expanding membership in the ACA and closing the Medicaid coverage gap.
One 2022 survey conducted by the Alliance for Health Care/Morning Consult Health Care Perceptions found that three-quarters of adults with employer-sponsored health insurance rate their plan positively. This finding extended across survey participants’ age, gender and political party affiliation. Also, an estimated 28% said their current plans are “excellent” and 47% said they were “good,” according to the same survey.
The research also found that three-fifths of those who received their care through their own or spouse’s health plan would not be eager to switch to a government-sponsored plan, while 42% said they are “likely” to switch. Conversely, 66% of respondents who receive care through their own or spouse’s employer-sponsored plan would be more unlikely to switch to a plan that they would have to purchase themselves.
Nearly two-thirds of insured adults also feel that the U.S. should take “modest steps” in repairing and improving the current healthcare system.
Although doing that means working through gridlock in D.C., Klein said, mental health initiatives do have support from both sides of the Congressional aisle. “There is genuine bipartisan support for greater mental health coverage. Whether or not they can agree on specific items, at least the overarching goal is a positive one here,” said Klein.
Climate change is also having a surprising impact on retirement plans and how the government thinks that money should be invested on behalf of working Americans enrolled in company-sponsored plans. “Should investors invest in industries that do harm to the environment?” Klein questioned. “And conversely, should you invest in a sector that might have too much exposure to the changing climate?”
This is a new reality for employers and benefits administrators, said Klein. “This has never been considered before now but will be as we go forward.”