The Battle for the Individual Mandate

A particularly contentious mailing from then-Sen. Barack Obama accused his opponent of wanting to get everyone health insurance by having “the government force uninsured people to buy insurance, even if they can’t afford it.”   

 The idea of an “individual mandate” was an object of derision for Sen. Obama and is believed to have helped secure him the Democratic nomination for president over Hillary Clinton.  So it is particularly galling that his administration would embrace the idea. One senior official admitted it barely a month after his inauguration: “I don’t see how you cover everybody without an individual mandate,” the official told liberal pundit Ezra Klein. 

 The Democratic leadership in the House of Representatives has embraced the individual mandate in the 1,000-page health care overhaul bill.  Anticipating no one would actually read the bill, they have opted to call it “shared responsibility.”  On page 167, the bill imposes a 2.5-percent tax on income for people found to have health insurance that is deemed unacceptable by the government.  Based on Congressional Budget Office projections, this would impact 8 million Americans — nearly all of whom would make less than $250,000 per year, meaning the president promised not to raise their taxes. 

 Undoubtedly, this is one of the many reasons liberal groups and unions have been allied against an individual mandate from Massachusetts to California.  The Women’s Economic Agenda Project, whose motto is “we, the poor, jobless, downsized, uninsured victims of welfare reform and others abused by the institutions of domination are no longer silent,” have stated clearly: “Under [an individual] mandate, ‘being too poor to purchase health insurance becomes a crime.’” 

 Massachusetts labor union leaders, in a February 18 letter to President Obama, used the language of AFL-CIO chief John Sweeney: “It is unconscionable that Massachusetts has adopted this misguided individual mandate.”   And this is the model that President Obama and Democratic leaders want to force upon the rest of the country. 

 But the left’s opposition to an individual mandate runs even deeper, and with even more Obama ties.  During the 2007 legislative session, California Gov. Schwarzenegger attempted to push through a series of “Massachusetts-like” health care reforms.  Opposition to the individual mandate was strongest from liberal groups, including the California Nurses Association.  The CNA railed against the individual mandate as part of a scheme for “corporate welfare.” 

 And the spokesman for a radio commercial released by the CNA on January 10, 2008?  None other than Sen. Barack Obama, who attacked the proponents of the individual mandate: “Their essential argument is the only way to get everybody covered is if the government forces you to buy health insurance. If you don’t buy it, then you’ll be penalized in some way.” 

 What these groups recognized, and President Obama apparently used to understand, is that an individual mandate for health insurance is, in fact, a massive transfer of power and wealth from American families to government and to those companies and industries with the most lobbying dollars.  In fact, the individual mandate is likely the basis for the outpouring of financial and rhetorical support for Democratic congressional plans from America’s Health Insurance Plans, the private insurer lobbying group, and PhRMA, the drug industry’s lobbying arm.

 Since it appears that President Obama and his advisors have been meeting with industry groups since his inauguration,  it is reasonable to ask if President Obama ever intended to keep his promise to block an individual mandate.

 In the Feb. 21, 2008, debate with Hillary Clinton, then-Sen. Obama stated plainly,

 “Massachusetts has a mandate right now. They have exempted 20 percent of the uninsured because they have concluded that that 20 percent can’t afford it.  In some cases, there are people who are paying fines and still can’t afford it, so now they’re worse off than they were. They don’t have health insurance and they’re paying a fine.”

  President Obama should heed his own words and block an individual mandate from being part of any health care reform.  Otherwise, in his words, the people he is claiming to help will end up “worse off than they were.”