Compulsory Medical Insurance as Collective Punishment

Published in today’s TCS Daily:
Update: Versions have also published in the Colorado Springs Gazette, the Rocky Mountain News (on-line), the Pueblo Chieftain, and the Independence Institute (with references.)

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Remember how in grade school, the teacher would punish the whole class for the actions of just a few disruptive students? This is an early lesson in collective punishment, which is usually practiced during wartime or under martial law.

Collective punishment has now arrived with compulsory medical insurance. Known as an “individual mandate,” politicians of both major parties have supported it. Compulsory politically-defined insurance is law in Massachusetts , is up for consideration in California and Colorado, and Democratic presidential candidates endorse it nationally.

Politicians peddle compulsory insurance under the guise of “personal responsibility.” The story is that the uninsured receive medical care without paying for it. Their freeloading passes costs onto the insured, which increases premium costs. Compulsory insurance, say its supporters, can remedy this problem by forcing both the insured and uninsured to purchase medical insurance – as defined by politicians.

This rationale is flawed. First, freeloading from the uninsured does not significantly increase insurance premiums.

Paying the medical bills for the uninsured adds little to insurance premiums – and certainly less than Colorado ‘s scheme for compulsory insurance. A study published in Health Affairs found that uncompensated care is “only 2.8 percent of total personal health care spending,” of which our tax dollars – not increased premiums – fund at least 80 percent.

In Colorado , the Lewin Group found uncompensated care to be less than four percent of total medical spending. The portion of uncompensated care that can correspond to increased premiums is around $200 million annually. This is just $85 per privately-insured resident, or one percent of the average premium.

But the billion-dollar “cure” proposed by Colorado ‘s Commission on Healthcare Reform would cost the insured much more. To encourage compliance with mandated insurance, the Commission’s plan includes tax-subsidized premiums and Medicaid expansion. Per privately-insured Colorado resident, the tax increase would cost about $400.

Second, holding people responsible would mean punishing freeloaders themselves and allowing providers to prevent customers from skipping out on the bill. This is the exact opposite of compulsory insurance, which forces the innocent to purchase insurance policies determined by political interests, rather than their own needs. This is collective punishment.

What if we applied the rationale for compulsory medical insurance to freeloaders who leave restaurants without paying the bill? This certainly increases prices, but forcing all citizens to purchase “diner’s insurance” punishes the innocent.

Third, government controls already punish the innocent – insured and uninsured alike – by making medical care and insurance prohibitively expensive.

The federal tax exemption for employer-provided insurance coddles insurance companies by tying employees to their employer’s plans. This effectively discounts insurance and shields insurance companies from competition. It also drives customers to demand more comprehensive insurance than they otherwise would. Insulated from medical costs, patients spend like business travelers on a company expense account, so medical providers need not compete on price. Shall we further pamper insurance companies by forcing everyone to purchase their products?

On the state level, medical providers and disease constituencies lobby to force insurance to include benefits that many customers do not need. For example, Colorado law compels widowed wives to pay higher premiums for prostate screening, maternity, and marital therapy. These and other mandates increase Colorado premiums by 21 to 54 percent, which dwarfs the one percent increase attributable to the uninsured. Colorado ‘s Chief Medical Officer states that 2,500 Coloradans lose insurance for every one percent increase in premiums. Nationally, the figure is 300,000 people. These controls also reduce wages and are responsible for up to twenty-five percent of America ‘s uninsured.

Compulsory insurance further empowers politicians to determine what insurance is best for you. For example, the Boston Globe reports that under the Massachusetts plan, “more than 200,000 people with health insurance would have to buy additional coverage to meet proposed minimum standards under the state’s new health insurance law.”

When government policies increase insurance costs, the first to drop coverage are the young and healthy. Those remaining in the insurance pool are at higher risk to incur medical expenses, so premiums rise again, which again drives out the healthiest remaining customers. It takes some nerve to support policies that make insurance prohibitively expensive and then make it a crime not to purchase it.

Compulsory insurance is based on collective punishment, a perverted form of justice found where troops patrol the streets and spitballs go splat. It punishes both the insured and uninsured for the misdeeds of politicians. Legislators should stop scapegoating the uninsured for the mess they’ve perpetuated. They should repeal legislation that inhibits the free market from delivering affordable high-quality medical care.

Thanks to Liz, Ari Armstrong, Paul Hsieh, and Nick Schulz, the Editor of TCS Daily, for valuable suggestions on revising it. I also am grateful that Nick chose to publish it, as I’m certainly in company with well-established authors on that site.

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