Individual mandate opposition gets new life

Efforts by Republican lawmakers to delay or repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA)’s individual mandate got renewed media coverage in July, following the Treasury Department’s announcement that the employer mandate would effectively be delayed one year.

“After more than two years of voting repeatedly and unsuccessfully to repeal the healthcare law, Republicans believe they are getting traction thanks to what they see as the Obama administration’s self-inflicted wound over the employer mandate,” the New York Times wrote July 9.

Republicans struck the theme of fairness in their messaging: “Many Democrats voted to stand with big business and against fairness for individuals and families,” Republican Representative Tim Griffin, of Arkansas, said in a weekly GOP video.

"President Obama threatened to veto our proposals altogether. We take that to mean he thinks it's fair to let businesses off the hook while leaving middle-class families in harm's way."

Another variation on that theme was from Tom Reed, who represents the western and central portions of New York’s Southern Tier: “If you’re going to back off the employer mandate, who’s going to pick up the tab for individuals?” he asked a reporter for the Steuben Courier Advocate.

The House voted on July 17 to delay the individual mandate for one year, but of course the Senate likely won’t take up that bill.

Outside the Beltway, across the country, public opinion is still mixed on the individual mandate. An 884-person survey by the consumer health website Health Pocket found only 12 percent in support of full individual mandate implementation, while 41 percent favored a one year waiver for the lack-of-coverage fines, and 47 percent weren’t sure.

The question that news workers, observers and consumers alike may have been wondering, though, is: Could the Obama Administration actually delay the individual mandate?

Whether it’s legally at the president’s discretion isn’t clear. The employer mandate’s section of the ACA gives the Treasury Department the ability to delay, calling for an effective date of 2014; it can also start “at such time as the Secretary may prescribe,” while the individual mandate contains no language offering a choice.

But even if the president could delay, and even if he’s facing mounting pressure from Republicans and some lingering negative public opinion, a range of observers think the administration will have to stick with it for the success of the law — the individual mandate being an impetus to get young people into the insurance market risks pools that they are so needed to help function.

Plus, “the insurance industry would also not accept a retreat from the individual mandate,” as Reuters reported.

Delaying the individual mandate — assuming that would dissuade young people from buying insurance — raises the risk of a policy disaster, as critics and opponents of the law are predicting.

Katie Mahoney, executive director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, told Reuters: “It's going to be really hard to impose the individual mandate without an employer mandate. And if you cut that, you could see the whole thing start to unravel.”