The point is that for employers, health care is merely a part of total compensation: It reduces cash compensation for employees but it does not increase costs of employment. To argue otherwise is to argue for lower total U.S. compensation -- that is, lower wages for U.S. workers. Said Mr. Elmendorf, "the costs of providing health insurance to their workers are not a competitive disadvantage to U.S.-based firms."
If one assumes that the labor supply curve was perfectly inelastic, then any increase (decrease) in the amount of employee health care cost borne by the employer would be fully passed onto employees in the form of lower (higher) wages. The analysis is similar to an analysis of the effect of reducing the payroll tax - a proposal that Greg Mankiw has made. If the labor supply curve is perfectly inelastic, reducing either the payroll tax or the amount of employee health care cost borne by the employer would have no effect on the cost of employment to employers or the amount of workers hired.
But wait a second - I thought moderate supply-siders such as Greg Mankiw (Dr. Mankiw is not one of those lunatic supply-siders like Art Laffer) argue for reductions in the payroll tax in order to induce an increase in employment as if the labor supply curve were not perfectly inelastic. So why wouldn’t a reduction in the amount of employee health care cost borne by the employer have at least modest benefits for the US economy?
Update: CBO provides Elmendorf’s testimony on February 25, 2009. On the last two pages of this 31 page document, there is a brief discussion entitled “Effects on the Economy”. While Elmendorf did make the sensible statement that any cost of employer provided health care would at least be borne in the form of lower wages, this section also begins with:
Proposals that made large-scale changes affecting the provision and financing of health insurance could also have an impact on the broader economy. Because most health insurance is currently provided through employers, proposals could affect labor markets by changing individuals’ decisions about whether and how much to work and employers’ decisions to hire workers.