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The Fiscal Stress Arising from State and Local Retiree Health Obligations

Author

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  • Byron Lutz
  • Louise Sheiner

Abstract

A major factor weighing down the long-term finances of state and local governments is the obligation to fund retiree benefits. While state and local government pension obligations have been analyzed in great detail, much less attention has been paid to the costs of the other major retiree benefit provided by these governments: retiree health insurance. The first portion of the paper uses the information contained in the annual actuarial reports for public retiree health plans to reverse engineer the cash flows underlying the liabilities given in the report. Obtaining the cash flows allows us to construct liability estimates which are consistent across governments in terms of the discount rate, actuarial method and assumptions concerning medical cost inflation and mortality. We find that the total unfunded accrued liability of state and local governments for the provision of retiree health care exceeds $1 trillion, or about ⅓ of total state and local government revenue. Relative to pension obligations discounted at the same rate, we find that unfunded retiree health care liabilities are ½ the size of unfunded pension obligations. We also find that using assumptions concerning the growth in health care costs that are arguably more realistic than those employed by most states actually reduces the size of the liability in most cases. Pushing in the opposite direction, we find that using plausibly more realistic mortality assumptions increases the size of liability. The second portion of the paper places retiree health care obligations into context by examining the budget pressures associated with retiree health on a continuing, largely pay-as-you go basis. We find that much of the projected increase in retiree health obligations as a share of revenue is the result of health care cost growth. On average, states could put their retiree health obligations into long-run fiscal balance by contributing an additional ¾ percent of total revenue toward the benefit each year. There is, however, wide variation across the states, with the majority of states requiring little in the way of additional financing, but some states requiring a significantly larger increase.

Suggested Citation

  • Byron Lutz & Louise Sheiner, 2014. "The Fiscal Stress Arising from State and Local Retiree Health Obligations," NBER Working Papers 19779, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:19779
    Note: AG HC HE PE
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    References listed on IDEAS

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    1. Shoven, John B. & Slavov, Sita Nataraj, 2014. "The role of retiree health insurance in the early retirement of public sector employees," Journal of Health Economics, Elsevier, vol. 38(C), pages 99-108.
    2. Clark, Robert L. & Morrill, Melinda Sandler, 2011. "The funding status of retiree health plans in the public sector," Journal of Pension Economics and Finance, Cambridge University Press, vol. 10(02), pages 291-314, April.
    3. Fitzpatrick, Maria D., 2014. "Retiree health insurance for public school employees: Does it affect retirement?," Journal of Health Economics, Elsevier, vol. 38(C), pages 88-98.
    4. Robert L. Clark & Melinda Sandler Morrill, 2010. "Retiree Health Plans in the Public Sector," Books, Edward Elgar Publishing, number 13688.
    5. Poterba, James M, 1994. "State Responses to Fiscal Crises: The Effects of Budgetary Institutions and Politics," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 102(4), pages 799-821, August.
    6. Robert Novy-Marx & Joshua D. Rauh, 2013. "Funding Soft Liabilities," NBER Chapters,in: State and Local Health Plans for Active and Retired Public Employees National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    7. Stephen A. Woodbury & James Marton, 2006. "Retiree Health Benefit Coverage and Retirement," Economics Working Paper Archive wp_470, Levy Economics Institute.
    8. Robert L. Clark, 2009. "Will Public Sector Retiree Health Benefit Plans Survive? Economic and Policy Implications of Unfunded Liabilities," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 99(2), pages 533-537, May.
    9. Robert Novy-Marx & Joshua D. Rauh, 2009. "The Liabilities and Risks of State-Sponsored Pension Plans," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 23(4), pages 191-210, Fall.
    10. Clemens, Jeffrey & Cutler, David M., 2014. "Who pays for public employee health costs?," Journal of Health Economics, Elsevier, vol. 38(C), pages 65-76.
    11. Burson, Jean & Carlson, John & Ergungor, O. Emre & Waiwood, Patricia, 2013. "Do public pension obligations affect state funding costs?," Working Paper 1301, Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, revised 01 Jul 2014.
    12. James Marton & Stephen A. Woodbury, 2007. "Retiree Health Benefit Coverage and Retirement," Book chapters authored by Upjohn Institute researchers,in: Dimitri B. Papadimitriou (ed.), Government Spending on the Elderly, pages 222-242 W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research.
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    1. repec:bla:manchs:v:85:y:2017:i::p:1-32 is not listed on IDEAS
    2. repec:aea:jecper:v:31:y:2017:i:3:p:175-94 is not listed on IDEAS

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • H0 - Public Economics - - General
    • H53 - Public Economics - - National Government Expenditures and Related Policies - - - Government Expenditures and Welfare Programs
    • H72 - Public Economics - - State and Local Government; Intergovernmental Relations - - - State and Local Budget and Expenditures
    • H75 - Public Economics - - State and Local Government; Intergovernmental Relations - - - State and Local Government: Health, Education, and Welfare

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