Today, the Supreme Court is deciding whether to let many of the provisions of the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. ACA, a.k.a. Health Reform, a.k.a. Obamacare) stand. One of the key provisions is the individual mandate. The individual mandate requires all individuals to purchase health insurance. If you don’t buy health insurance, you must pay a penalty or fine.
The reason Obama claims the individual mandate is necessary is due to the prohibition of setting premiums based on pre-existing conditions. Currently, if you don’t have insurance, you become ill and try to buy insurance, it is very expensive. The ACA, however, would prohibit insurers from price discriminating based on your health status. Although this may sound good in theory, there are problems in practice if the individual mandate is not in place. Many individuals will have an incentive not to buy insurance when they are healthy. When they become sick, they can purchase an insurance plan for the same price as someone who has had insurance for 10 years. Because only sick people will be insured, the average cost of health insurance will rise for everyone. Hence, the need for the individual mandate arises.
The individual mandate, however, may not be constitutional. Can the government compel individuals to buy something? Many states already require auto insurance. This requirement is only applied to those who own a car whereas the only condition for the health insurance mandate is that you are alive.
Americans have already found a way around this problem, however. Medicare’s prescription drug program (Medicare Part D) is an optional program. No one has to buy prescription drug coverage. Further, premiums do not vary based on health status (although insurers receive different subsidies based on individual’s health conditions).
To incentivize individuals to purchase prescription drug coverage while they are healthy, Medicare Part D relies on a late enrollment penalty. Any individual who does not purchase prescription drug coverage when they are eligible has to pay an increased premium when they are eligible. This increased premium depends not on your health status, but on the number of months you were not enrolled when eligible. From the Medicare website:
The late enrollment penalty is calculated by multiplying 1% of the “national base beneficiary premium” ($31.08 in 2012) times the number of full, uncovered months you were eligible but didn’t join a Medicare drug plan and went without other creditable prescription drug coverage. The final amount is rounded to the nearest $.10 and added to your monthly premium.
This approach could solve both problems. The one short-coming is determining how much the late-enrollment penalty should be for private plans. Allowing the government to set prices is generally a poor idea. One could allow private plans to set the late enrollment penalty, as long as this were regulated to prohibit price discrimination based on individual health status. Although this approach certainly has a number of challenges, it may be more palatable to the American public (and the Supreme Court) than an individual mandate.