Jon Stewart grills Health secretary on Obamacare: Who won?

'Daily Show' host Jon Stewart pounded Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius over and over with one question about Obamacare: Why can't an individual delay the mandate to buy health insurance but a business can?

Jason Reed/Reuters
President Obama and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius walk from the Oval Office to the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, where Obama delivered remarks on Oct. 1 about the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.

Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius might have thought she could go on “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart and have an easy ride. You know, put up with a few jokes about the dysfunctional Obamacare website, Healthcare.gov, make a plea for “young invincibles” to buy health insurance with a government subsidy (free money!), and call it a night.

Indeed, Ms. Sebelius got in her talking points: Many will end up paying less for health coverage than their monthly cellphone or cable bill, she said. And yes, the launch of Healthcare.gov was “a little rockier than we’d like.”

But she also got a grilling from the liberal late-night comedy host over an issue near and dear to Obamacare critics: the fact that the individual mandate to buy insurance goes into effect Jan. 1, while businesses with 50 employees or more got a one-year reprieve from their Obamacare requirements.

Why does this make sense? Mr. Stewart asked over and over, zeroing in on people who resent being forced to buy health insurance.

“If I’m an individual who doesn’t want this, it would be hard for me to look at a big business getting a waiver and not having to do it, and me having to,” Stewart said. “I would feel like you were favoring big business because they lobbied you to delay it.”

Why not allow individuals that same courtesy? Stewart asked.

Ninety-five percent of big businesses already provide health insurance to their employees, Sebelius replied. "A delay doesn't change the market numbers.”

But Stewart kept at it: Isn’t it a legitimate criticism that an individual cannot delay the mandate but a business can?

Sebelius framed her answer in terms of what the law does for individuals, not what it requires: “Nothing that helps an individual get health insurance has been delayed at all,” such as the choice of plans and a possible subsidy, she said.

And individuals who don’t want to buy insurance can pay a fine, she pointed out. In the first year, it’s just $95 or 1 percent of income.

Then Sebelius made her pitch to young invincibles – the young Americans who, in the past, did not buy health insurance – to buy insurance anyway even if their finances are tight. "For a lot of young folks, they're one fall on the basketball court, one auto accident away from a lifetime of hospital bills they can't pay,” she said.

Stewart also asked her the question we’ve all been dying to get an answer to: How many people have actually managed to buy health insurance through the still-glitch-plagued Healthcare.gov?

“Fully enrolled?” Sebelius said. “I can’t tell you.” But her department will be putting out monthly reports, she promised. And so far, there have been “lots of Web hits” and “hundreds of thousands of accounts created.”

At the end of the show, Stewart threw in final burst of exasperation:  

“I still don’t understand why individuals have to sign up and businesses don’t, because if the businesses – if she’s saying, ‘Well, they get a delay because that doesn’t matter anyway because they already give health care,’ then you think to yourself, ‘[Expletive] it, then why do they have to sign up at all,’ ” he said. “And then I think to myself, ‘Well, maybe she’s just lying to me. Just to me?’ ”

It was a little tongue in cheek. But Stewart, posing as Everyman, made his point. Obamacare has left a lot of folks confused. Stewart says he would rather have a “single payer” system, in which the government is the public’s primary insurer. So in fact he positioned himself to Sebelius’s left. But if her goal was to add to the public’s understanding of the Affordable Care Act, we’re not sure she succeeded. 

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