No mandate to change Obamacare rules again
Remember the individual mandate, the cornerstone of Obamacare, which the White House fought for all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and won.
Turns out it wasn’t so important, after all. On Thursday, the Obama administration announced hardship exemptions for potentially millions of Americans whose individual insurance policies have been canceled. They will now be allowed to buy less-expensive catastrophic insurance policies or opt out of Obamacare for at least a year without facing the fines required by the individual mandate.
There are multiple problems with this change, including the fact it came just three days before the supposed deadline for purchasing new insurance policies under Obamacare, and it throws insurance pools into turmoil.
The number of enrollees is already far below what was projected for the end of this year, primarily because of problems with the federal government website, HealthCare.gov, and similar problems with state exchanges. The latest change is likely to make even fewer people eager to sign up, insurance executives say, and thereby make the pool of those buying insurance even more unstable, tilted heavily toward those with the most severe health problems.
Officials with the Health and Human Services Department claim the change will only affect about 500,000 people. But California officials say at least 1 million people have had their policies canceled in that state alone, and Republicans argue the nationwide figure is more than 5 million.
Then there is the question of fairness. As noted by Ezra Klein, a Washington Post writer and Obamacare supporter who has become increasingly critical of the program, Thursday’s action opens the door for politicians to demand that everyone be given an exemption from the individual mandate, not just those whose policies were cancelled.
“Why are people whose plans were canceled more deserving of help than people who couldn’t afford a plan in the first place?” Klein wondered.
Additionally, there is the question of whether Obama and his team even have the authority to make such changes. According to the National Review Online, this marks the 14th change in the Affordable Care Act made by executive fiat by the administration. But this may be the most substantial. After all, the individual mandate was upheld by the Supreme Court, and the language of the law says the vast majority of Americans “must” obtain insurance or pay a penalty. It doesn’t say the president may decide who is not covered by the mandate.
All presidents exercise some discretion in how they enforce laws passed by Congress, but this president has been more aggressive than previous ones in picking and choosing.
The change may be significant for the future of Obamacare.
“This puts the first crack in the individual mandate,” Klein wrote. “The question is whether it’s the last.” If Congress uses the ruling as an excuse to exempt others from the mandate, “then it’ll be a very big problem for the law.”
Increasingly, it appears, this is a law with very big problems.