(AP Photo/Disney)

You should have heard the crowd’s collective gasp at the Benefits Selling Expo last month when Robert Gibbs declared the employer mandate all but dead.

It turned out to be the obituary heard ’round the world, as Fox News and The Wall Street Journal started calling us. As with most days, I wasn’t sure if the calls brought cheers or effigies. (Turns out all they wanted was footage…)

Even the administration had to respond, sending Nancy Pelosi around the Sunday morning talk shows to vilify Obama’s prodigal adviser.

That was weeks ago – practically a lifetime in media years. So why bring this up now?

Well, new research back up Gibbs’ claim that the employer mandate isn’t all that consequential after all.

According to our own Kathryn Mayer, who reported on this last week while I was touring the deep south, “Researchers at the Urban Institute, who prepared the research for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, said that though 500,000 fewer people will get health insurance through their employer if the mandate is eliminated, the majority of them would find coverage through the law’s exchanges.”

And that doesn’t even address the wild expansion of Medicaid, which — trust me — is just getting started.

Of course, now — in my own cynical way — I can’t help but think Gibbs was a plant, floating a trial balloon in our rarefied Rocky Mountain air. And now I find myself waiting for the other shoe to drop. More than ever, I’m convinced it will happen before the holidays.

(I can’t wait to see the pro-business groups cry foul when it happens, though. As if such a move won’t help the same people they claim to defend.)

But let’s face it, from market-based perspective; you absolutely have to have some kind of mandate to make the numbers work. And I think one is enough.

Oddly enough, I was in Atlanta last week listening to the father of the individual mandate himself, John Goodman, rail against that same mandate. I actually would have appreciated him taking responsibility for that during his debate — while I’m still flabbergasted his so-called opponent failed to do so. I would have been all over him like Jay Z in an elevator.

That being said, I love Goodman’s idea of a flat subsidy. I’m also warming to the idea of maybe moving the employee out of the benefits, as in abandoning the employer-paid model altogether. This third-party business is wrecking the system. I mean, let’s face it, ERISA itself’s only 40 years old. It’s not like the founding fathers included PTO in the bill of rights.

Besides, you deficit hawks out there would appreciate the budget savings we’d rack up by killing the tax incentives driving employee benefits in the first place. Let’s move them over to the employees themselves. The corporations get enough breaks as it is.

Maybe I’ve wandered off topic (again), but if we’re going to make individuals get health insurance — but not make companies offer it to them — shouldn’t they be reaping the benefits?

One more thing about the exchanges, while we’re at it: While we were in South Carolina last week, a broker brought up the exchanges. He simply didn’t understand why anyone thought these exchanges — or any defined contribution arrangement — would work. He reminded me that we tried this once, around 15 to 20 years ago. I believe they were called flex benefits. It flopped worse than a Lars Von Trier film.
Seriously, if someone could help me out here … what’s so different this time around?