Appearing with Juan Williams on “The O’Reilly Factor” last night, I don’t think I evinced enough shock at this argument simply because it was so surprising it didn’t sink in until later. After O’Reilly opens by explaining that expansions to the “hardship exemption” to Obamacare’s individual mandate are essentially obliterating the mandate by letting everyone get out of it, Williams declared this a fantasy no fewer than four times.
Specifically, the idea that the hardship exemption has been expanded to a point that makes the individual mandate de facto delayed, or at least willfully unenforced, is a “fantasy” of “right-wing blogs…to sabotage Obamacare.” Juan maintains the exemption is only for people who “had a fire in your home or if you’re a victim of spousal abuse,” and other major, verifiable hardships.
Juan is right that is what the hardship exemption was meant to be. But it’s far more than that now, thanks to President Obama’s administration and panicking Democrats who are more than happy to sabotage their own law with a Whack-a-Mole approach to every potential political problem the law precipitates. Let’s go back to December:
Individuals whose health plans were canceled will now automatically qualify for a “hardship exemption” from the mandate. If they can’t or don’t sign up for a new plan, they don’t have to pay the tax. They can also get a special category of ObamaCare insurance designed for people under age 30.
So merry Christmas. If ObamaCare’s benefit and income redistribution requirements made your old, cheaper, better health plan illegal, you now have the option of going without coverage without the government taking your money as punishment. You can also claim the tautological consolation of an ObamaCare hardship exemption due to ObamaCare itself.
The wording from HHS allows exemptions for those who “experienced financial or domestic circumstances, including an unexpected natural or human-caused event, such that he or she had a significant, unexpected increase in essential expenses that prevented him or her from obtaining coverage under a qualified health plan.”
Perhaps supporters can be forgiven for forgetting that months-old blow to the Worst Jenga Tower Ever Constructed in the barrage of blows the administration has delivered unto it over the past months. But how do they forget this week’s, ahem, adjustment? Peter Suderman:
[December’s decision] weakened the mandate. An update to the exemption rendered it nearly useless. Earlier this week, The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page noted that the hardship exemption had quietly been extended through 2016, and that the verification required to obtain the exemption was less than strict:
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.
So, the White House isn’t officially delaying the mandate. Instead, the administration is declining to enforce it on anyone who asks to be exempt.
In some sense, it’s like used car pricing, or cable company discounts. Officially, the price is what’s on the sticker. But if you make even a token effort to bargain, or half-heartedly threaten to cancel service, you can get the price lowered.
But Juan doesn’t have to take my word for it, or the Wall Street Journal’s, or Suderman’s. Jonathan Cohn of the New Republic, who doesn’t see the administration’s non-enforcement as a dire threat now, but acknowledges it exists and could be problematic later:
The CBO report does raise one awkward question for Democrats. The law includes a “hardship waiver,” which allows people to avoid paying the fine if buying affordable insurance would be difficult. And the Obama Administration has made clear it intends to interpret that provision broadly, to the point that avoiding the mandate next year should be easy. Legally that’s probably fine. And allowing lots of exemptions, at least early on, has certain logic to it. With a big program like this, slow, gradual transitions make sense. Massachusetts had plenty of exemptions when it introduced its version of reform.
But if the mandate is as important as CBO and the experts say, then at some point it needs to become a real and potent threat—more than it would seem to be right now. Otherwise, it won’t do much good and Obamacare’s enrollment numbers could look as bad as those from the Republican replacement bill.
Is the sabotage Juan alleges simply the reporting of the exemption parameters? But how would that work as sabotage if it were indeed “fantasy?”
And, if it’s sabotage to mention the lax exemption rules, then why is President Obama sabotaging Obamacare while ostensibly selling it to young invincibles on Seacrest?
“What happens is, if you do not sign up by March 31st, then you will not be able to sign up again until November. So if you want health insurance this year, you need to make sure that you are signing up by March 31st. Now, if you cannot afford health insurance, even with the subsidies and the tax credits, then there’s a hardship exemption and you will not suffer any penalty. If you can afford it and you just decide you just don’t want to get it, because your attitude is, ‘nothing’s ever going to happen to me,’ then you’ll be charged a penalty. And the reason is, if you end up having an accident and you end up in the emergency room, somebody’s gotta pay for it, and that somebody is folks who’ve been responsible about getting health insurance.”
Let’s not fool ourselves. Even if no one mentioned this exemption in the news, Reddit would find it and inform every 20-30-something in America of how to avoid their fines. For non-Redditors, there’d be a Yahoo! Answers thread with a link to the Reddit thread. For non-Yahoo! Answers people, there’d be a Facebook post that’d go viral with step-by-step instructions for exemptioning. And, for those who aren’t on Facebook, there’d be a chain e-mail. No amount of cute LeBron James ads is going to outdo the American determination to avoid the IRS. I doubt teaching your mom to ruin social networks for you is going to help the government either.
And, once again, in expecting all of us who opposed the law to keep our mouths shut about the administration’s undermining of it, Obamacare supporters require the law’s opponents to be more dedicated to its success than the President who declares it his legacy. To use one of the president’s favorite words, that’s unfair.