Oh, by the way: Obama just quietly suspended ObamaCare's individual mandate until 2016

He forgot to mention it. Minor oversight, could have happened to anybody.

The mandate, remember, has already been suspended this year for people who had their old insurance canceled and who now regard it as a “hardship” to purchase insurance on the supposedly affordable Affordable Care Act exchanges. For them, as Ezra Klein put it at the time, “ObamaCare itself is the hardship.” But there’s an obvious problem with that scheme: The “hardship” exemption applies only to people who used to have insurance, and it applies only for this enrollment period. The mandate penalty would continue to bite people who didn’t have insurance before, which seems unfair, and it’d be back in full force this fall even for people who did have it, right around the time that America votes in the midterms.

And so a political problem gets a policy solution. Again.

That seven-page technical bulletin includes a paragraph and footnote that casually mention that a rule in a separate December 2013 bulletin would be extended for two more years, until 2016. Lo and behold, it turns out this second rule, which was supposed to last for only a year, allows Americans whose coverage was cancelled to opt out of the mandate altogether…

But amid the post-rollout political backlash, last week the agency created a new category: Now all you need to do is fill out a form attesting that your plan was cancelled and that you “believe that the plan options available in the [ObamaCare] Marketplace in your area are more expensive than your cancelled health insurance policy” or “you consider other available policies unaffordable.”

This lax standard—no formula or hard test beyond a person’s belief—at least ostensibly requires proof such as an insurer termination notice. But people can also qualify for hardships for the unspecified nonreason that “you experienced another hardship in obtaining health insurance,” which only requires “documentation if possible.” And yet another waiver is available to those who say they are merely unable to afford coverage, regardless of their prior insurance. In a word, these shifting legal benchmarks offer an exemption to everyone who conceivably wants one.

In other words, the new and improved “hardship” exemption isn’t limited to people who used to have insurance. Anyone can claim it, purely on their own say-so that they can’t afford it, which is an … interesting loophole coming from a guy who’s now going around the country nudging people to drop their cable and cell phones to pay for his expensive insurance instead. I wonder if he’s seen this graph. I’m thinking he probably has:


Yuval Levin saw the new suspension coming back in December, when the “hardship” exemption was originally extended to people with un-canceled plans:

[T]he individual mandate is probably done for.

I would now assume that no one will pay the individual mandate fine for 2014. The administration may give up on the mandate in the course of the ongoing enrollment period if the political pressure is great enough, or they may keep up the pretense of it through the end of the enrollment period in March (when it will have finished its work, so to speak, since its purpose is to influence choices made during that period) but then exempt everyone from it as they did with the employer mandate for this year. Having now exempted from the fine people whose policies were canceled and who haven’t spent the money to get more expensive and less appealing new coverage, the politics of still applying the fine to everyone else who is uninsured this year will probably just not be sustainable, and the politics of exempting people from it (especially if they can hold out on doing so until after March 31) will be far too appealing for this White House to resist. They may claim the mandate will be back in 2015, but if they do exempt everyone from it in 2014 it will be hard to bring it back.

The IRS was never going to enforce the mandate strictly this year, but now they don’t have to enforce it at all. Anyone who’s declined to buy insurance by April 1st can simply claim hardship and that’s that. This makes three major rule changes to the core components of ObamaCare in the past month alone: On February 10th, the White House delayed the employer mandate for small businesses until 2016, and then, 10 days ago, it extended for two more years the rule allowing insurers to un-cancel plans for consumers who want their old, cheaper coverage back. Little did we know until now that, on the same day, they also all but suspended the individual mandate until 2016. And like Levin says, it’s unlikely that they’ll ever bring it back. Why would the next president, eager to begin his/her term on a strong note, want to reinstate a harsh financial penalty for noncompliance with O-Care when the guy who signed the law was unwilling to? The mandate is dead. Obama’s repealing ObamaCare himself, piece by piece. And he’s creating a two-tiered, less sustainable health-insurance system in the process.

Two questions, though. One: Why extend/delay all of these components until 2016, when they’ll land in Democrats’ laps during an election year yet again? Why not 2017 so that they’re off the table for the next election too? I assume that’s because Democrats want to keep the next extension in their back pocket for a well-timed unveiling during the 2016 campaign. Imagine the headline in May of that year, when Hillary and her Republican challenger are going toe to toe: “Consumers spared higher premiums this fall as Obama waives regulations again.” Democrats will drink in the glory and gratitude of systematically undoing the crap they dumped on America in the first place. Two: Why do this in secret, with little fanfare? If this is all about politics in November, why not trumpet it? “Yes! You too can now be exempt from the mandate!” One obvious reason is that they’re eager to get as many sign-ups as possible before the March 31st deadline and don’t want to do say or do anything that might discourage that. But in that case, why did they reveal the new mandate extension before the deadline had passed rather than later? Odd. The other reason to keep things quiet, I suppose, is that it’s simply too humiliating for the White House to admit that a provision they fought all the way to the Supreme Court to protect is now being punted into oblivion because it’s so radioactive to Democrats. So they’re going to let people who want/need the exemption discover it on their own. If the IRS phones to find out why someone hasn’t bought insurance, the agent will presumably ask if they’d like to claim a “hardship” exemption and the answer inevitably will be yes. No muss, no fuss.