Congressional leaders and the White House are pushing forward with their aggressive agenda to remake our health sector as though they are oblivious to the fear and outrage outside the Beltway and the pleas of the American people to apply the brakes.
Only one in five Americans say their health-insurance coverage and the quality of the care they receive will improve if a bill passes Congress this year. But the Senate Finance Committee nonetheless presses on, planning to resume debate Tuesday on more than 500 amendments submitted to Chairman Baucus’s 220-page “summary” of legislation. (“Read the bill! What bill?”) In their willingness to order people’s lives, intrude into their heath-care decisions, and spend taxpayers’ money for generations to come, lawmakers are exhibiting breathtaking hubris.
Why the rush? The best explanation I’ve heard is that the Democratic leadership is convinced that the reason Hillarycare led to such a huge Democratic defeat in the 1994 elections was that Congress failed to get a bill passed. If lawmakers back then had just tried harder, the thinking goes, voters would not have retaliated against Democrats at the ballot box, and instead would have thanked them for passing health reform. This theory is remarkably unpersuasive — but inside the Beltway, anything can seem possible.
The American people are more aware than ever before of what the legislative proposals before Congress would do. The facts about health-care reform are not obscured by the speeches of President Obama and his supporters in Congress.
The prime example is the requirement in all of the major committee bills that all Americans have health insurance. Families that did not buy insurance would face a new tax of up to $1,900 a year. Despite the president’s statements to the contrary, a top congressional tax expert told the Senate Finance Committee last week that the penalty for not complying with the requirement to buy health insurance would indeed be an excise tax, and it would hit the middle class. Further, a handwritten note to Sen. John Ensign (R., Nev.) from Joint Committee on Taxation chief of staff Tom Barthold confirmed that failing to pay the $1,900 penalty could lead to a year in jail or a $25,000 fine.
But it doesn’t end there. The individual mandate would lead to a cascade of government intrusions and losses of freedom. For starters, imposing an “individual mandate” means the government would have to define what type of health insurance qualifies, and all of the bills making their way through Congress would require a very expensive benefits package. Next, hundreds of billions of dollars in new taxpayer subsidies would be needed to help Americans pay for this rich coverage, leading to new taxes — including taxes on medical products, which would push up the cost of health-insurance premiums. In addition, people with expensive health insurance likely would be hit with a 40 percent premium increase, as their insurance companies passed on a new excise tax on Cadillac plans.
The government would tell everyone how much they could afford to pay for all of their health costs — up to $20,000 a year for those with incomes above $96,000, for example. Further, employers would be required to provide health insurance, help their workers pay premiums, or face penalties. Many of them don’t believe the promised government subsidies for some small businesses would help, and they say the new burden would lead to less hiring and more layoffs.
The mandate would also put the federal government in the business of regulating health insurance. Premium regulation would mean that young people would face higher premiums to subsidize older Americans.
President Obama argued against imposing a mandate for health insurance during the campaign, saying, “It’s not that people don’t want health insurance. It’s that they can’t afford it.” He was right then, and he should focus now, not on the individual mandate, but on making health care and health insurance truly affordable. We don’t need a tax-and-spend plan for a government takeover of health care that will cause health costs to rise and mean a significant loss of freedom for all Americans.
So what is going to happen? The outcome is now much more about politics than about policy. The White House wants to achieve a victory in any way possible. Liberals continue to spar over the “public plan.” The Finance Committee hopes to complete work on its bill this week so that the full Senate can vote on a bill shortly after. House leaders are pushing for action by mid-October. The leadership is not planning any major recesses in October, in hopes that members can pass health-care reform before they have any more opportunities to meet with their constituents. But the odds of passage diminish every day that the bills sit out there and people learn more about what is in them.
Published in National Review Online: Critical Condition, September 28, 2009