Two of the central planks of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) go by the names of ‘guaranteed issue’ and ‘community rating’. According to guaranteed issue, no health insurance company is permitted to deny someone coverage based upon a pre-existing condition. According to community rating, insurance companies must offer the same policies to everyone for the same price. The idea is that health status is largely something beyond anyone’s control, and so it is unfair for those who, through no fault of their own, suffer ill health to have to pay a price for it. Whatever you think of the merits of these ideas, they’re embedded (in spirit, despite lots of exceptions) in the PPACA.
The worry, in theory, is that many people will wait till they develop a pre-existing condition to get coverage, saving premium expenses in the meantime. The reason is if they do so, they will not have to worry about being denied coverage because of guaranteed issue, and they will pay the same price then whether they buy it now or not. If people in fact do this, insurance companies will only have relatively sick people on their rolls, forcing them to raise premiums to cover the cost of their claims. Higher premiums, in turn, will encourage the relatively healthy among the insured to forgo insurance, rendering the pool still sicker, driving up premiums more. And so on and so forth.
This problem is known as ‘adverse selection’. The ultimate outcome, in principle, is that the price of insurance will spiral upwards until it is no longer a profitable business, causing a disappearance of the market. This has not happened in any of the states that have guaranteed issue and community rating policies, but it has been shown that their premiums rise faster than in states without those policies. What we can expect, then, is that they will quickly and sharply drive up the cost of health insurance.
The purpose of requiring everyone to buy health insurance is to prevent this spiral from getting off the ground. If everyone has insurance, no one can forgo it until they get sick, making adverse selection a non-issue. Arguably, there are other reasons to be wary of such a mandate, but most experts agree it is essential if community rating and guaranteed issue are to work without causing premiums to explode. If the Supreme Court rules the mandate unconstitutional, leaving these other pieces in place, the PPACA is going to cause a lot of problems no one particularly intended.This is why they may choose to eliminate guaranteed issue and community rating, too, in which case the core of the bill will be withdrawn.
I’m not a lawyer, but for what it’s worth, the mandate isn’t that big a deal. Suppose that the government decided to tax every citizen, to pay for a ‘motherhood and apple pie fund’. They then also decide that they’re going to cut a check of the same size to everyone who has health insurance. Nobody would dispute the constitutionality of either of those measures in the slightest, and yet together they amount to a fine for those who do not have health insurance. The only difference is that this is called a ‘tax’, while the mandate’s fee is a ‘penalty’. Note that the penalty is collected by the IRS, and you cannot go to jail for refusing to pay it. Sounds like a distinction without a difference to me.
Legal opponents raise the question of what limits there are on the government if it can require you to buy something. This, to me, is pretty silly. It isn’t requiring you to do anything. It’s just using the word ‘require’ to stigmatize those who choose not to get health insurance, making them feel like outlaws. It also asks them to pay a fine for doing so. The government isn’t coming into anyone’s home, insisting that they buy health insurance at the point of a gun. They’re just making your life a bit more difficult if you don’t get health insurance. Welcome to society. Sometimes the government has to make certain things more of a headache for the sake of promoting the general welfare. PPACA may or may not promote the general welfare, but saying that the government can’t give you a headache for making certain decisions is to say that the government cannot affirmatively try to solve any social problems at all. If you don’t like the PPACA, try to elect some folks who will get rid of it. Don’t try to make it impossible for the government to solve large social problems going forward.