Charis Fischer
On Friday, U.S. Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) sent a letter to AT&T and several other companies requesting that they verify that the health care bill's passage will indeed cost the corporations additional expenses. This came after AT&T, which employs 9,000 people in the St. Louis area, said it would record a $1 billion non-cash charge during the first quarter of 2010 because of the tax changes associated with the bill. Under the new law, companies will continue to receive a tax-free subsidy of 28 percent on programs to provide their employees with prescription drug benefits, but they will no longer be able receive the double benefit of deducting the value of the subsidy on their taxes. AT&T said that they will evaluate possible changes to the active and retiree health care benefits offered by the company.

So, let's recap: The United States Congress passed a bill that makes tax changes. Those tax changes will by design affect corporations' balance sheets and generate more revenue for the government. When corporations inform the public of these effects, members of Congress request verification of the accuracy of these effects, merely because they contradict what the legislators expected and said would happen.

In the letter, the congressmen state that the bill is "designed to expand coverage and bring down costs," which makes AT&T's claims "troubling." The key word here is "designed." The legislation may indeed have been designed with the intention of reducing costs, but that doesn't mean it will actually have that effect when implemented. The letter also cites reports from the Congressional Budget Office and the Business Roundtable projecting that premiums could decrease during the next six to 10 years as a result of the reforms. The report by the Business Roundtable says that "if enacted properly, the right legislative reforms could potentially reduce [premiums] by more than $3,000 per employee" (emphasis added). So, this depends on the right reforms being enacted in the proper way (which we know almost never happens), and then premiums could potentially be reduced. The congressmen neglect to mention in their letter that this report also has a section titled "Risks Could Jeopardize Cost Reductions," which points out that revenue raisers such as a "high-cost" tax could make health insurance costs worse for affected plans and employees.

The worst thing about this is that the government is asking a private company to explain its accounting, something they have no authority to demand. Beyond filing their taxes accurately, AT&T has no obligation to the government to explain itself, only an obligation to its shareholders. The shareholders are perfectly capable of "verifying" the company's financial information on their own. The congressmen's request that AT&T justify the increase in expenses reflects the apparent unwillingness of many legislators to acknowledge the unintended consequences of their legislation.

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Charis Fischer