Republican businessman Mike Braun says he wants all Americans to have health insurance just like his own workers — a pillar of his campaign to unseat Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly in Indiana’s exceedingly tight Senate race.
Braun boasts that his prowess at cutting deals with health insurers at his auto parts and shipping company means he could “walk into that Senate and probably know more about what to do than anybody that’s there.”
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But while he may have kept premiums stable for a decade for his roughly 900 workers, deductibles are sky-high — meaning big out-of-pocket costs for anyone who gets sick. Employees of his company, Meyer Distributing, must spend $5,000 a year on health care before their bills are covered, and families pay double that, or $10,000 a year, according to a copy of the plan obtained by POLITICO.
“It was not real insurance,” said Heath Kluemper, who worked as a copywriter for Meyer in Jasper, Ind. “If I did ever have to go to the hospital, I’d have been screwed.”
Amid polls showing that health care is dominating 2018’s key midterm races that will determine control of Congress — and Democrats hold an advantage — even Republicans are talking about the issue. Braun has attempted to erase that advantage by pointing to his company health plan as a point of pride, cutting a recent TV ad about it and bringing it up in town halls, campaign stops and local news interviews. His campaign told POLITICO that he covered his workers’ pre-existing conditions “before it was cool” — even though employer health plans have generally had to cover those conditions by law since the 1990s.
He’s also criticized Donnelly for allowing Indiana’s Obamacare marketplace to worsen. Donnelly in turn has attacked Braun for backing a lawsuit brought by conservative states that aims to kill Obamacare and its consumer protections for people with pre-existing conditions. The two face off in their first debate Monday night.
But Braun’s workers pay far more than most people who get their insurance through their jobs. Some former employees described the health benefits offered by their millionaire boss as “horrendous” and “a joke.” Kluemper, for instance, said his deductible is now half of what it was at his new marketing job in the same town, and some care is covered even before he’s paid that out.
The deductibles at Meyer are within the limits set by Obamacare, which currently cap out-of-pocket costs at $7,350 for an individual plan and $14,700 for a family. But those Obamacare costs have been under constant attack from Republicans, who traditionally favored high-deductible plans while also arguing they’re evidence of Obamacare’s problems. President Donald Trump has complained the law’s high deductibles rendered Obamacare coverage useless “unless you get hit by a truck.”
Nationally, the average deductible for a single plan is $1,573, according to a survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation and released this week. In Indiana, the averages are higher — about $1,800 for an individual and $4,020 for a family. Braun’s are more than twice as much.
“It’s totally outside the norm,” Alex Slabosky, the former president and CEO of Indiana University Health Plans, said of Meyer’s benefits package. “I cannot imagine offering that type of plan to the people I was in business with.”
Braun has said he brought down health costs at his company by self-insuring, meaning the company itself is on the hook for its workers’ medical claims, rather than a third-party insurance company. He has also touted the stable, low premiums his workers pay — $34.30 biweekly for a single person. For a family, it’s a less-affordable $198.44 (about $5,000 a year).
Missing from this story are the high deductibles.
“The insurance plan pays nothing for illness, injury, treatment for a pre-existing condition, or pharmacy medicine until the employee has paid either $5,000 as a single person, or $10,000 as a family,” Slabosky explained. “If you’re a low-income person, a $10,000 deductible could push you over the edge. I just can’t imagine how he can say this is a model for American health care.”
The plan does cover certain preventive services for free, as required by the Affordable Care Act. But it doesn’t — before the deductible is reached — cover prescription drugs for chronic conditions, which could get worse, and more expensive to treat, if not adequately controlled.
“That’s really unusual, but it’s not unheard of,” said Dave Kelleher, the former president of the Indiana-based consulting firm Health Care Options. “That means no benefits for preventative medicine like for asthma or diabetes or [high] cholesterol — things you want employees to be taking.”
When pressed, Braun has defended the high upfront cost he requires of his workers; many of them start at around $12 per hour. He got a salary of $180,000 from Meyer last year and is worth between $35 million and $96 million, according to financial disclosures released this year.
“All we’ve done in my business, and it’s not mysterious, is basically harness human nature,” he told the local outlet Howey Politics Indiana. “If you have skin in the game and you feel the cost of something, you shop around.”
Republicans have historically promoted health plans that required enrollees to pay more toward their care, believing it would make people avoid unnecessary doctor’s visits or tests that drive up the nation’s health care tab. But to workers living paycheck to paycheck, “skin in the game” often means avoiding doctor visits altogether.
A study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that workers enrolled in high-deductible employer plans were “twice as likely as others with more traditional employer-sponsored insurance to say there was a time in the past year when they needed medical care but didn’t get it because of the cost.” Those enrolled in plans like Braun’s were also more likely to avoid taking a recommended medical test or filling a prescription because of the out-of-pocket cost. And if it’s hard to shop around for routine care, it is even less feasible in an emergency.
The Braun campaign still sees his experience as a plus.
“Career politician Joe Donnelly has meant higher premiums for Hoosiers because he’s busy taking cash from the insurance industry, while Mike Braun has been busy delivering affordability and solutions,” Braun spokesman Josh Kelley said.
“Rep. Braun wants to take nationwide a plan that forces some of his employees to spend nearly half their annual salary caring for a child with cancer before their insurance would chip in a dime,” said Donnelly spokesman Will Baskin-Gerwitz. “Hoosiers understand that health insurance they can’t afford isn’t insurance at all, and they know Rep. Braun can’t be trusted with their health care coverage.”