Wednesday, February 02, 2011

The Stubborn Charade of the Individual Mandate

Why the stubborn insistence that the individual mandate is absolutely necessary to effective reform of our health care system? I am somewhat baffled.

The individual mandate is combined with a penalty for not buying government approved insurance, and with subsidies for buying such insurance, where the subsidy depends on your income level. By 2016 the penalty will be the greater of 2.5% of income or $695. Coupled with the penalty will be a subsidized insurance policy available. Let's say just for argument that the subsidized price of insurance for such a person would be $3,000. Thus, the purely economic calculus is that the net cost of insurance is $2,305 -- the difference between the cost of insurance and the penalty. Presumably if the insurance is worth more than $2,305, such a person would buy it and avoid the penalty.

Of course it is extremely simple to achieve the same outcome purely with a larger subsidy. Just make the cost of the insurance $2,305. The economics of the situation are virtually identical (virtually in that the person's situation is improved by $695 in the second scenario, whether they buy insurance or not). The key point is that the difference in wealth between having insurance vs. not having insurance is $2305 in both scenarios, i.e., the real price of insurance is the same.

So why do folks insist on the mandate/penalty combination instead of the free choice/subsidy combination?

Well, the larger subsidy costs more tax revenues. That probably would not have passed even the 2010 Congress. Essentially the mandate is a way to shift the cost of the program from general tax revenues to individuals who are forced to buy a product they don't want to.

There are other ways to achieve larger participation in the health insurance market as well, such as open enrollment periods at certain times only, and imposing a real cost for noncontinuous coverage.

1 comment:

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