Supporters of the Affordable Care Act have always had a difficult time talking about the “individual mandate,” since it is at the same time the most strikingly coercive and heavy-handed element of the law while also being essential for making the law work. As I argue in a column at National Review Online, however, the Supreme Court’s decision last June to uphold Obamacare also undermined the legal and moral force of the “mandate” by ruling that it was only legitimate if understood as an optional tax on the uninsured, not a legal mandate obligating citizens to purchase health insurance.
Though the law’s supporters believe the threat of the mandate is critical to forcing people into the Obamacare exchanges, they don’t want to admit this directly to voters. So the mandate is mentioned often in policy circles, but seldom by supporters when communicating in the media or directly to voters. Every once in a while, though, when pressed in more public settings on why they think the young will sign up for coverage, they are forced to admit that it’s due in part to their faith in the mandate — as Zeke Emanuel did on Fox News Sunday over the weekend.
The ambivalent embrace of the mandate by Obamacare’s authors is reflected in the law’s construction. Initially, the mandate’s year-by-year penalties were set at much higher levels, but they were lowered by Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee to protect themselves from political attacks by Republicans. As enacted, the mandate’s penalties are very low, especially relative to the premiums charged by insurers in the exchanges, and especially in the first two years. In 2014, the penalty, or tax, is the greater of (a) a per-person tax of $95 per adult and $47.50 per child, up to a maximum of $285, or (b) 1 percent of total household income. The tax rises to 2 percent of household income in 2015. A typical household of four people with an income of $40,000 will face a mandate tax of $400 in 2014. That compares with premium payments of $1,500 to $3,000 for the typical low-cost insurance offerings, even after the federal subsidies are netted out of the premium costs.
You can read the rest of the column here.