Means-Testing Federal Health Entitlement Benefits

Andrew A. Samwick

NBER Retirement Research Center Paper No. NB 12-16
Issued in September 2012

In recent years, federal legislation has linked the price paid for health insurance benefits to measures of current income. Under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, individuals and families with income as high as 400% of the federal poverty level are eligible for subsidies that limit their health insurance premiums to no more than 9.5% of their income. Under the Medicare Modernization Act of 2003, higher‐income beneficiaries face income‐related premiums over three times the standard premium for Part B coverage. For workers at or near retirement age, means‐testing based on current income provides an incentive for early retirement, dissaving, and income manipulation, raising concerns about the efficiency of such means‐testing. Further, current income is subject to short‐term fluctuations, making it a noisy predictor of ability to pay. Using the Health and Retirement Study and linked Social Security earnings histories, it is shown that a measure of lifetime income compares favorably to current income as a basis for means‐testing. It offers less short‐term variation in premiums while improving incentives for pre‐retirement work and saving.

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