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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Employers are the linchpin of the U.S. health care system. But they don't always act like it.

The big picture: Employers play a minor role in the political debate over health care costs, but they have a lot on the line — and a lot more political muscle than they're choosing to flex. An increasingly bipartisan cadre of policy experts is trying to tell them that staying on the sidelines is both counterproductive and unsustainable.

Collectively, private-sector employers are one of the biggest and most politically powerful stakeholder groups in the health care debate. They cover more people than any other source, and account for about 20% of all health care spending — almost $700 billion in 2017.

  • "You would think that employers have a ton to gain by engaging in these discussions" around cost, said Dan Mendelson, the founder of the consulting firm Avalere Health. But they have consistently "failed to realize those expectations."

The catch: Even though businesses are the core of the health care system, health care typically isn't the core of what they do. They have similar structural interests, but they're not necessarily organized around those interests.

  • For years, businesses have responded to rising health care costs primarily by shifting more of those costs onto their workers, through higher deductibles and other cost-sharing. The average deductible is now 212% higher than it was in 2008.
  • If employers ever reach the conclusion that they've taken this kind of cost-shifting as far as it can go, they could be powerful voices in the political debate over more aggressive cost-control measures — and they do want to control costs. But for now, they're still on the sidelines.
  • "The frustration is definitely rising, but I would be hesitant to predict a breaking point," Mendelson said. "It would be great if they were more engaged, but at the same time it's rational that they are trying to reduce their exposure."

There are exceptions. Walmart, for example, has undertaken an especially aggressive effort to overhaul its health benefits, even ditching traditional insurers and bargaining directly with health systems that have reputations for high-quality care.

  • Then there's Haven, the joint effort from Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase. But it's still not clear whether that project will try to affect systemwide change, or simply a better deal for its many employees, more similar to Walmart's direct-purchasing goals. Those tools are only available to the largest companies.

Most employers still rely on their insurers to negotiate the best prices, preferring to stay out the weeds themselves. But insurers are becoming increasingly vocal about the difficulty of negotiating big discounts on hospital care, as hospitals consolidate, and for new prescription drugs that don't have any competition.

  • Government-led efforts to directly control those costs run into fierce industry opposition. But if anything could help them break through politically, the most likely inflection point would likely be some kind of "enough is enough" moment from employers.
  • "I think you're going to see more and more pressure, and even openness to public policy interventions that take advantage of negotiations" — for example, tying some private payment rates to Medicare's, Democratic health care strategist Chris Jennings said.

It's not just Democrats.

  • John Bardis, a former Trump administration health care official, said in a speech this week that employers need to take more aggressive stances toward cost containment.
  • Avik Roy, a conservative policy analyst who advised Mitt Romney's presidential campaign on health care, has also endorsed more direct intervention. In the most concentrated, least competitive markets, the government should cap how much hospitals can charge private insurers, using Medicare rates as a baseline, he says.

The bottom line: If there's ever going to be a turning point that would make cost containment more politically attainable, employers would probably need to be the ones who drive it.

Go deeper

Ina Fried, author of Login
16 mins ago - Technology

CES was largely irrelevant this year

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Forced online by the pandemic and overshadowed by the attack on the Capitol, the 2021 edition of CES was mostly an afterthought as media's attention focused elsewhere.

Why it matters: The consumer electronics trade show is the cornerstone event for the Consumer Technology Association and Las Vegas has been the traditional early-January gathering place for the tech industry.

The FBI is tracing a digital trail to Capitol rioters

Illustration: Sarah Grillo

Capitol rioters, eager to share proof of their efforts with other extremists online, have so far left a digital footprint of at least 140,000 images that is making it easier for federal law enforcement officials to capture and arrest them.

The big picture: Law enforcement's use of digital tracing isn't new, and has long been at the center of fierce battles over privacy and civil liberties. The Capitol siege is opening a fresh front in that debate.

Off the Rails

Episode 6: Last stand in Georgia

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Drew Angerer, Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

Beginning on election night 2020 and continuing through his final days in office, Donald Trump unraveled and dragged America with him, to the point that his followers sacked the U.S. Capitol with two weeks left in his term. Axios takes you inside the collapse of a president with a special series.

Episode 6: Georgia had not backed a Democratic presidential candidate since 1992 and Donald Trump's defeat in this Deep South stronghold, and his reaction to that loss, would help cost Republicans the U.S. Senate as well. Georgia was Trump's last stand.

On Air Force One, President Trump was in a mood. He had been clear he did not want to return to Georgia, and yet somehow he'd been conscripted into another rally on the night of Jan. 4.

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