Two key elements of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act are the requirement that health insurance carriers accept all applicants (what’s called guarantee issue) matched by a requirement that individuals obtain health care coverage or face a penalty (referred to as an individual mandate). The PPACA was not the first bill take this approach to move toward more universal coverage. In response to then President Bill Clinton’s health care reform proposal, 19 Republican Senators joined by two Democrats, put forward the Health Equity and Access Reform Today Act of 1993. Central to the proposed legislation was an individual mandate.
That was then.
Now Republicans cite the individual mandate as a key flaw of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Recently a Federal Judge in Florida declared the individual mandate contained in the the PPACA was unconstitutional and, as a result, the law itself was unconstitutional. Eventually the Supreme Court will rule on whether the individual mandate in particular and the health care reform law in general can stand. Their decision will hinge on how they interpret the Commerce Clause of the US Constitution.
This is not a clear-cut, black-or-white issue and the Court could go either way on the issue. The Commerce Clause has evolved considerably since the Constitution was adopted. That legal scholars and judges reach different conclusions when applying it is not surprising. Consider: to date, two Federal District Court Judges have rejected claims the individual mandate exceeds Congress’ powers under the Commerce Clause while two others determined it does. For those interested, NPR’s The Diane Rehm Show aired one of the most informative, clear and helpful discussions of the legal issues surrounding the PPACA I’ve come across. (The entire 51 minutes segment is well worth a listen, however, much of the key legal explanation takes place between the 8 minute and 28 minute marks).
Unless the Supreme Court accelerates the process, they will probably hear appeals of lower court decisions after they convene their next term in October of this year, with a decision likely to be published in the Spring of 2012. Take note of that timing – as we’ll see it matters.
The question is, should President Barack Obama even let the individual mandate reach the Supreme Court? An argument can be made that the President and his signature domestic legislative accomplishment would be better off abandoning the individual mandate as it exists and replacing it with a different approach. Here’s my version of the argument:
Requiring carriers to accept all applicants without a provision requiring consumers to obtain coverage is a recipe for disaster. The average premium for individual coverage (insurance purchased without a contribution from an employer) in New York and New Jersey are more than twice the average premium for similar coverage in California in large part because New York and New Jersey law requires guarantee issue, but lack an individual mandate. . Consumers there take the economically smart course of waiting until they are sick or have an accident before obtaining coverage. To cover the inevitable losses, carriers set high premiums.
This is why Democrats included an individual mandate in the PPACA. Unfortunately, it isn’t much of a mandate. Individuals who fail to obtain coverage, unless excused from the requirement on religious grounds, will be required to pay a penalty. In 2014 this fine is the greater of $95 or 1% of income; by 2016 $695 or 2.5% of income, whichever is greater. Given that the CBO estimates that individual premiums for the lowest level of benefits available to most Americans under the PPACA will average between $4,500 and $5,000 (that’s for the Bronze level of benefits for those keeping track) the economic calculation is pretty straightforward. $4,500 is 2.5% of $180,000. So anyone with a taxable income of $180,000 is arguably better off going without coverage until they need it – give or take risk tolerance.
The PPACA’s individual mandate may be lightweight, but the political cost has been heavy Jettisoning the individual mandate as it currently exists would neuter one of the Republicans core attacks against President Obama and the PPACA – that this provision exemplifies an abusive expansion of the federal government at the expense of individual liberty. (That the IRS will need to hire additional staff to enforce the penalties only makes the situation politically worse for the Administration). Democrats may describe the individual mandate as a call for individual responsibility, but they’re losing the debate – as the election results of 2010 underscores.
Replacing the PPACA’s individual mandate with something different, something that more directly speaks to personal responsibility – without involving the IRS – and that is more effective in accomplishing the goal of the individual mandate, is a winning public policy and political strategy.
Fortunately for the Administration, there are viable alternatives. For example, a year ago I suggested allowing carriers to exclude coverage for pre-existing health conditions and impose a premium surcharge on individuals who go without medical coverage for a specified period of time. Others are suggesting creating a limited open enrollment period during which uninsured individuals can apply for coverage on a guaranteed issue basis.
There’s another very practical reason for the President to seek a different approach to getting individuals to obtain coverage before they are sick or injured. Whether the Supreme Court will rule the PPACA’s individual mandate as unconstitutional is a great unknown. Legal decisions are hard to predict and given the makeup of the current Court, their decision on this matter will likely be close.
And the result could be devastating to the Administration. If the Court were to strike down the individual mandate in the Spring of 2012 the Administration would be forced to find a replacement in the heat of a presidential election campaign. How likely are Republicans to cooperate with the White House just weeks before their nominating convention? Worse, the Supreme Court could find that since the individual mandate is unconstitutional the entire health care reform law is nullified.
Imagine the chaos. Would 26 year olds insured under their parents’ policies suddenly be dropped? Would seniors be required to reimburse the government for checks they’ve received to close the donut hole in their Medicare prescription coverage? This is not what the President wants dominating the news during his re-election campaign.
The political and societal risk can be minimized to nearly zero simply by eliminating the element of the PPACA most open to challenge: the individual mandate. After all, the Supreme Court can’t declare unconstitutional a provision already removed from the law.
Republicans say they want to do away with the individual mandate. The President should let them do so. Yes, the GOP will claim victory. For the Obama Administration, giving Republicans bragging rights is a small price to pay for improving the PPACA, demonstrating his openness to bipartisan solutions, and avoiding a political nightmare of apocalyptic proportions.
This is one situation in President Obama should embrace the call to “repeal and replace.” Doing so is in his own – and more importantly, the American people’s – best interest.