Commentary: Health care mandate is about personal responsibility

The Myrtle Beach SunApril 3, 2012 

“Now, it is as plain as the spectacles on Antonin Scalia’s nose that opting out of the health-care market is about as realistic as opting out of dying.” - John Cassidy of the New Yorker.

Following the debate over the Affordable Care Act has reminded me of that old saw, everybody wants to get to heaven but nobody wants to die.

The public doesn’t want private insurance companies to be able to throw people off their rolls for the sin of getting too sick, or for denying them coverage because of a pre-existing condition, something they will no longer be able to do under the Affordable Care Act come 2014.

The public wants to keep in place the Reagan-era federal law that compels emergency rooms to treat whoever shows up, no matter if that person has not a dime to his name and won’t pay no matter how many harassing phone calls bill collectors make to their home.

But the public doesn’t want to be compelled to pay for those rights.

According to a variety of studies, from the independent Congressional scorekeeper the Congressional Budget Office to independent health care industry analysts, those with insurance are subsidizing those without to the tune of maybe $43 billion every year.

The annual premiums for those with health insurance are roughly $1,000 higher to make up for the unpaid bills of the uninsured.

According to the National Coalition on Healthcare, hospitals lose about $34 billion a year providing unpaid for care – services they are required to render because of federal law dating back to 1986. The group also said that “private insurance and some public payers pay an additional $37 billion on behalf of those with no insurance.”

What’s worse is that this is probably the least efficient, most wasteful way to operate the world’s most expensive health care system.

Justice Antonin Scalia alluded to it during this week’s debate when he said that one way to solve the problem would be to simply allow insurance companies the to right to throw sick patients off their rolls.

In fact, it is. Another way to solve the problem is to no longer guarantee access to emergency medical care, meaning that if you get into a car accident and can’t speak and your insurance card isn’t visible – or you don’t have insurance – medical officials should be able to deny you care, no matter how urgently you need it.

That’ll learn Americans who are not responsible enough to either purchase insurance without being compelled or have their insurance information tattooed to their forehead in case of an emergency. (Of course, if you suffer an ugly head trauma, that tattoo wouldn’t do any good.)

The Affordable Care Act has already done a variety of things, including slowing the rise in health care costs, convincing more medical institutions to go to a pay-for-quality rather than pay-for-quantity of care model, saving seniors tens of billions of dollars in drug costs and uncovering billions of dollars in fraud.

Because it has become a political lightning rod, all of those things and the contradictions being made by opponents are being overshadowed.

Conservatives have long claimed that they are the party of personal responsibility, yet conservatives have joined with a sizable number of liberals in opposition to the individual mandate, which will require everyone above a certain age who can afford it to buy health insurance.

The individual mandate is designed to make sure as many Americans as possible are paying into a system for which each of us is benefitting, to defray some of that $43 billion bill of annual uncompensated services, to assure that the insured no longer have to pay an extra $1,000 a year to pay for the uninsured.

If not the individual mandate, then something needs to be implemented that will accomplish the same goal – something those same conservatives seem to not want to do.

Or, we can take Justice Scalia’s advice and repeal all federal laws that compel medical officials to provide services to people who can’t pay for them, emergency or not.

The problem we’ve long had with balancing our books is that we too frequently demand things for which we don’t want to pay.

The individual mandate is unpopular largely because it threatens to shift that paradigm.

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