As many predicted, especially us at Cato, the Affordable Care Act is beginning to make health insurance less affordable for many Americans. Part of the problem, in a nutshell, is precisely what my colleague Michael Cannon described in 2009, the young and the healthy avoiding signing up for health insurance and choosing to pay the fine, or, as Chief Justice John Roberts would call it, a tax.
MIT economist Jonathan Gruber, often described as an architect Obamacare, recently said that some of these problems can be alleviated by increasing the “tax” on those without insurance. “I think probably the most important thing experts would agree is we need a larger mandate penalty,” said Gruber.
Depending on how high the penalty goes, there could be a constitutional problem with that. In the opinion that converted the “penalty” into a constitutional “tax,” Chief Justice Roberts described the characteristics of the “shared responsibility payment” that made it, constitutionally speaking, a tax rather than a penalty. One of those characteristics is that the penalty was not too high: “for most Americans the amount due will be far less than the price of insurance, and, by statute, it can never be more. It may often be a reasonable financial decision to make the payment rather than purchase insurance, unlike the ‘prohibitory’ financial punishment in Drexel Furniture.” In Drexel Furniture, also known as the Child Labor Tax Case, the Court struck down a 10 percent tax on the profits of employers who used child labor in certain businesses. One reason the Court struck it down was because its “prohibitory and regulatory effect and purpose are palpable.”