Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Obama, Clinton Square Off on Mandates

Political columnists everywhere have been having a field day as U.S. Presidential hopefuls Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois spar on the issue of health care reform. Both of the candidates have pledged to achieve universal health coverage, Clinton stressing a mandate (requiring the purchase of health insurance much as we do with automobile coverage) and Obama pressing affordability as the main issue.

Mike Dorning at the Baltimore Sun shares Sen. Obama's comments at a Littleton, NH event:

"Sen. Clinton still hasn't explained what this mandate is: What's she going to do if somebody doesn't purchase health care? Is she going to fine them? Is she going to garnish their wages?" Obama said.

"One of the problems with her approach is that she hasn't been straight with the American people about how she's going to impose this mandate. And without an enforcement mechanism, there is no mandate. It's just a political talking point," he continued...

Shortly after Obama spoke, his campaign sent out a memo noting that in Massachusetts, the only state so far to require residents to buy health insurance, hundreds of thousands of people have not purchased insurance despite a fine levied on those who fail to do so through their tax returns.

As the only Democratic candidate who does not support a mandate Obama has good reason to keep a close eye on the Massachusetts plan (originally set in place by Republican Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, who does not now support a national insurance mandate). According to this morning's New York Times article by Kevin Sack, implementing mandated coverage may not be quite as easy as it seems.

More than 200,000 previously uninsured residents have enrolled, but state officials estimate that at least that number, and perhaps twice as many, have not.

Those managing the enrollment effort say it has exceeded expectations. In particular, state-subsidized insurance packages offered to low-income residents have been so popular that the program’s spending may exceed its budget by nearly $150 million.

But the reluctance of so many to enroll, along with the possible exemption of 60,000 residents who cannot afford premiums, has raised questions about whether even a mandate can guarantee truly universal coverage.

Additional concerns have been generated by projections that the state’s insurers plan to raise rates 10 percent to 12 percent next year, twice this year’s national average. That would undercut the plan’s secondary goal of slowing the increase in health costs.

He goes on to share each of the Democratic frontrunners' views on the subject of mandated health care:

“The sad reality is that the uninsured don’t just struggle with costs themselves, they impose costs on the rest of us,” Mrs. Clinton said in September. “It’s a hidden tax: the high cost of emergency room visits that could have been prevented by a much less expensive doctor’s appointment, the cost of unpaid medical bills that lead insurance companies to raise rates on the rest of us.”

Mr. Edwards echoed those remarks a week later. “The reason the mandate is necessary is because you cannot have universal health care without it,” he said. “Does not exist, and anyone who pretends it is, is not being straight.”

Senator Barack Obama of Illinois sees it a different way. He argues there is danger in mandating coverage before it is clear it can be affordable for those at the margins. While Mr. Obama does not rule out a mandate down the road, his emphasis is on reducing costs and providing generous government subsidies to those who need them. He would mandate coverage for children.

Mr. Sack's article then looks at the penalty system set in place by the Massachusetts plan for those who refuse to get coverage. This year, state residents who do not purchase insurance will lose their tax exemption (approximately $200), next year that penalty will rise to half the cost of the least expensive insurance policy available (with a probable minimum of $1,000). In his interviews he finds that many were not purchasing insurance because they either did not feel the need for it or because the penalty was not yet high enough to force them to do so.

“At 27, it’s not like I’m thinking, ‘Oh, man, what if I need an operation down the line?’ ” said Samuel B. Hagan of Lenox, a courier who remains uninsured. “Furthest thing from my head.”

John E. McDonough, executive director of Health Care for All, an advocacy group based here, said he found it breathtaking that political leaders were calling for an individual mandate well before there was any way to measure the success of the Massachusetts experiment.

"As goes Massachusetts, so goes the Nation?" The pitfalls and successes of that state's health plan will figure largely in future dialog on the subject.

SOURCE: "Obama challenges Clinton on health care" updated
SOURCE: "Massachusetts Faces a Test on Health Care" 11/25/07
photo courtesy of patriarcha12, remixed and used under this Creative Commons license

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