The government could increase federal and state tax revenues by $31 billion a year and move toward curbing inflation in health costs, if Congress levied income taxes on health insurance premiums paid by employers, according to a government study released yesterday.
The study comes during a raging debate in the health community on whether tax breaks for health premiums make workers demand excessive policies and therefore cause extra inflationary strains on health facilities, a theory of Reagan health policy experts.
Some form of tax "cap" on the amount of premiums exempted is under consideration by the administration as a possible way to brake medical inflation, according to sources. But organized labor is strenuously opposed and a proposal along these lines likely would produce a tremendous congressional battle.
The proposals being looked at by the administration would continue to exempt some portion of the employer-paid premiums, perhaps the first $1,500 or $2,400 a year per worker, but then count anything above that as income to the worker, subject to normal taxes.
The study, produced by the National Center for Health Services Research of the Department of Health and Human Services, said that in 1983, employers are projected to pay $77 billion in premiums for health insurance for about 68 million employes. The average employer-paid premium is $1,126.
The employer contributions, one of the major fringe benefits of employment, are not counted as income to the worker and therefore he or she pays no income tax, Social Security tax or state tax.
The study, conducted by Amy Taylor and Gail Wilensky, was undertaken to see what would happen under a variety of different policies. For example:
* The study concluded that if all $77 billion in employer-paid premiums were counted as income to the worker, the federal government would collect $20.4 billion more in income taxes and $6.5 billion more in Social Security taxes and the states would collect $3.8 billion more, a total of $30.7 billion in 1983. Workers would end up paying $499 million more in taxes.
* If the first $1,125 per family or $450 for an individual were allowed to remain exempt, about 44 million workers would have higher tax burdens averaging $270 each and the total added federal and state taxes collected would be $12 billion.
* With an exemption of $1,800 per family or $720 for an individual, about 23.5 million workers would pay an average of $220 each more in taxes. Extra government revenues would total $5.2 billion a year.
* An exemption of $2,400 for a family and $975 for an individual would mean an average of $216 higher taxes for 1.6 million workers and $2.3 billion added revenues to the federal and state governments.
The study also concluded that if employer-paid premiums were taxed workers would "become more cost-conscious about their plans and purchase less, which could help slow health care inflation."