Health care: How the Republican assault could backfire
Health care mandate, if defeated, could lead to a more popular way to fund health care.
When it comes to health care, Republicans should be careful what they wish for.Skip to next paragraph
Robert is chancellor’s professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Clinton. Time Magazine named him one of the 10 most effective cabinet secretaries of the last century. He has written 13 books, including “The Work of Nations,” his latest best-seller “Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future," and a new e-book, “Beyond Outrage.” He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine and chairman of Common Cause.
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Their upcoming vote to repeal the health-care law will be largely symbolic — they don’t have the votes to override President Obama’s certain veto. The real thing happens later, when they try to strip the Department of Health and Human Services of money needed to implement the law’s requirement that all Americans buy health insurance. This could easily precipitate a showdown with the White House—and a government shutdown later this year.
On its face it’s a smart strategy for the GOP. The individual mandate is the linchpin of the heath-care law because it spreads the risks. Without the participation of younger or healthier people, private insurers won’t be able to take on older or sicker customers with pre-existing medical conditions, or maintain coverage indefinitely for people who become seriously ill. The result would be to unravel the health-care law, which presumably is what many Republicans seek.
At the same time, the mandate is the least popular aspect of the law. According to a December 9-12 ABC/Washington Post survey, 60% of the public opposes the individual mandate. While they want help with their health-care bills, and over 60% want to prevent insurers from dropping coverage when customers become seriously ill, most Americans simply don’t like the idea of government requiring them to buy something. It not only offends libertarian sensibilities, but it also worries some moderates and liberals who fear private insurers will charge too much because of insufficient competition in the industry.
The individual mandate is also most susceptible to legal challenge. Twenty states, led by Florida, have joined together in a lawsuit to argue that the mandate oversteps federal authority. Virginia and some interest groups are also challenging the mandate’s constitutionality in federal court. In the first major ruling, on December 13, Judge Henry E. Hudson of the federal district court in Richmond called the mandate an “unbridled exercise of federal police powers” and an overreach of the Constitution’s Commerce Clause. The U.S. government is now appealing that decision.
You might argue government mandates to buy insurance aren’t unusual. After all, most states require people to purchase auto insurance in order to drive a car, and most lenders (including those underwritten by Fannie May or Freddie Mac) require potential homeowners to buy home insurance. But the analogy doesn’t quite hold. These requirements come from states or from banks—not directly from the federal government. More importantly, they rest on basic act of volition. No one has to buy a car or a house. Not so with health insurance under the new law.
Nonetheless, there’s a great irony in the Republican assault — and a hidden danger for Republicans.
The federal government wouldn’t be nearly as vulnerable to these political and legal obstacles had the health-care law been built upon the framework of Social Security or Medicare—public insurance financed by payroll taxes—as many Democrats had initially urged. Not only are these programs enormously popular (“Don’t take away my Medicare!” was a rallying cry among some conservative populists during the debates over the health-care law) but they also rest on a more widely accepted relationship between the individual, the government and the market.