Can Health Reform survive without the individual mandate?

Wednesday, the Supreme Court heard arguments over whether the individual mandate is “severable” from the rest of the health reform law. That is, if they choose to strike down the individual mandate, do they also have to take down other parts of the law that may or may not depend on the mandate to function? The Court should rule that all of the rest of the law should stand, even if the mandate falls.

The individual mandate is in the law as a companion to the law’s prohibition on discriminating against people with pre-existing conditions. If we want universal coverage, the insurance companies have to be required to cover everybody. If  they have to cover everybody then everybody has to sign up. If not, then only the sick would sign up for health insurance and rates would go through the roof.

Of course, most of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) isn’t related to the individual mandate and would not be affected if the mandate is struck down by the Supreme Court. For example:

  • The Affordable Care Act will expand Medicaid so that it covers everyone who makes under 133% of the poverty line. Currently in many states, you cannot qualify for Medicaid even if you make nothing in income. The only way for adults in many states to get on Medicaid is if they (1)have children and (2) make less than a third of the poverty line! (How’s that for a social safety net?) The ACA patches up this hole and of course, the individual mandate does not affect Medicaid at all.
  • The law also starts several experiments in payment reform through Medicare. Currently Medicare, like almost all insurance plans, pays doctors for every service they perform. This is a problem because it means insurance pays for more care rather than better care, driving up the cost of health care in America. The ACA aims to change that. It is already starting several small scale experiments in cost-control. Its payment reforms include giving a hospital a set amount to treat one disease or a lump sum to treat one group of people for a year. It also starts lowering payments to hospitals that have high rates of re-admission and has given out grants to medical providers so that they can better share information about patients and study which treatments are the most cost-effective for a given disease. All this is to say that the ACA is trying lots of different ways to bring down the cost of medical care in the US. These methods have nothing to do with the individual mandate.
  • Finally the ACA reforms the individual buyer’s insurance market. Even these provisions, though they are related to the mandate, should be able to stand if it is declared unconstitutional. For example, the ACA makes insurance companies display information about their plans in an easy to read format. Its sort of a “nutrition facts” label for insurance plans. As it stands currently, you would need a lawyer to wade through countless pages of insurance jargon to tell you what you are buying  from an insurance company.  This is as big of a no-brainer as I can think of in the bill. The law also creates online exchanges where you can compare and buy these newly-understandable insurance packages. It also says that insurance plans must cover preventive care and cannot retroactively cancel coverage when you get sick.

So, can you  think of a way that the expanded Medicaid program would be affected by striking down the individual mandate? I can’t.  Besides the fact that they are both tools to increase insurance coverage, I don’t see them overlapping at all. Likewise with the reforms to Medicare. Those reforms are done in order to reduce costs in the Medicare program. The Medicare program and the population it serves are completely unaffected by the individual mandate.

Finally, the ACA’s improvements to the individual insurance market do not rely on the mandate to function. Some, like the exchanges and the insurance plan fact sheet won’t be terribly affected by the loss of the mandate. Even the guarantee of insurance coverage–the part of the ACA most related to the individual mandate–can still stand (though it wont work nearly as effectively).

For instance, New York, New Jersey, Maine and Vermont all force insurers to cover everyone in the state and do not have an individual mandate. This is less than ideal, and insurance premiums are much higher in those states because of that decision, but it is obviously possible to have a health insurance system with guaranteed issue  and without an individual mandate. Congress is also more than capable of coming up with a substitute for the mandate.

At any rate, it is not the Supreme Court’s job to make political decisions about a statute. If part of a law is unconstitutional, then they should strike only that portion. The Courts should not and cannot wade into the political and policy issues involved in deciding which *Constitutional* parts of the law need to be thrown out alongside a (supposedly) unconstitutional provision.

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