individual mandate

A Startling Development on the ObamaCare Front

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit — the court that would hear any appeal of the Texas v. Azar decision overturning the entire Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) — has just issued a request that does not bode well for ObamaCare.

Could It Be Unconstitutional to Raise the Obamacare “Tax” for Not Purchasing Health Insurance?

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.”

When Exchanges Collapse, ObamaCare Penalizes You Even If Coverage Is Unaffordable

MIAMI, FL - NOVEMBER 02: Martha Lucia (L) sits with Rudy Figueroa, an insurance agent from Sunshine Life and Health Advisors, as she picks an insurance plan available in the third year of the Affordable Care Act at a store setup in the Mall of the Americas on November 2, 2015 in Miami, Florida. Open Enrollment began yesterday for people to sign up for a 2016 insurance plan through the Affordable Care Act. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

In opeds at Time and National Review Online, I discuss how ObamaCare’s health-insurance Exchange has collapsed in Pinal County, Arizona, throwing some 10,000 residents out of their ObamaCare plans. Charles Gaba of ACASignUps.net and Cynthia Cox of the Kaiser Family Foundation asked me to explain a claim I make in the NRO piece:

Obamacare will still penalize those residents if they don’t buy coverage — even if the amount they must pay increases tenfold or more.

Before I explain, let me first apologize on behalf of the Affordable Care Act’s authors for the complicated mess that follows.

ObamaCare’s individual mandate penalizes taxpayers who fail to purchase health insurance. But there are so many exemptions that of the 33 million or so people who lacked insurance in 2014, the IRS levied the penalty against only 6.6 million tax filers (which actually represents a larger number, maybe 17 million people).

For example, the Affordable Care Act exempts “individuals who cannot afford coverage” from the penalty. You qualify for this exemption if your “required contribution” exceeds roughly 8.13 percent of your household income. For individuals who don’t have access to a suitable employer plan, the “required contribution” is equal to “the annual premium for the lowest cost bronze plan available in the individual market through the Exchange in the State in the rating area in which the individual resides,” minus “the amount of the credit allowable under section 36B for the taxable year (determined as if the individual was covered by a qualified health plan offered through the Exchange for the entire taxable year).” In other words, if you would have to pay more than 8.13 percent of your income for an ObamaCare plan, even after accounting for premium subsidies, then coverage is unaffordable for you and ObamaCare doesn’t penalize you for not buying coverage.

You would think this exemption would somehow apply to the 10,000 residents of Pinal County, for whom coverage will become dramatically more expensive when the Exchange collapses. If those folks are like Exchange enrollees in the rest of the country, the vast majority of them (85 percent or so) receive premium subsidies. When their Exchange coverage disappears next year, so will those subsidies. If they wish to purchase coverage off the Exchange, they will face, for the first time, the actual cost of ObamaCare coverage. Given that the amount Pinal County residents will have to pay for ObamaCare coverage could rise by several multiples, from a fraction of the premium to the full premium, given that the lowest-income enrollees will see the largest increases, given that the large year-to-year rate increases occurring nationwide will only add to the suffering, you would think the ACA’s unaffordability exemption would somehow cover those 10,000 Pinal County residents. But you would be wrong.

A Long-Overdue Conversation about How to Replace ObamaCare

With the prospect of a Republican president who could conceivably repeal and replace ObamaCare, it is time for ObamaCare opponents to take a hard look at their “replace” plans. As I have argued elsewhere, expanding health savings accounts – a proposal I call Large HSAs – beats other alternatives like health-insurance tax credits. In short, if opponents succeed in repealing ObamaCare, Large HSAs would take another step in the direction of a market system. Health-insurance tax credits would constitute a step backward, because they would simply resurrect some of ObamaCare’s worst features–including an individual mandate and much of ObamaCare’s government spending and redistribution.

I set off a kerfuffle last week when I wrote that Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-FL) ObamaCare replacement plan contains an individual mandate in the form of tax credits for health insurance. Rubio supporters and others were none too pleased. 

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