David Morgan, who reports on health care at Reuters, could teach a class on how to spin a story. The Obama administration, he tells us in the lead of a recent article, is “poised for a huge public education campaign” about the health-care law. Opponents, however, aren’t "educating people" when they argue that the law is flawed. No, they’re engaged in “political maneuvers,” following a “political playbook” and trying out “ploys.”
But not to worry! “Political analysts say the Republican onslaught could prove short-lived” once people start experiencing the wonderfulness of the new law.
Liberals, nonetheless, spun themselves into a tizzy over one line in Morgan’s story, in which he quoted conservative activist Dean Clancy of FreedomWorks saying that his organization would try to make it “socially acceptable” for young people not to sign up to get health insurance from the subsidized exchanges created by the law. Brian Beutler of Talking Points Memo typified the reaction: “If there’s an excuse for encouraging people who have the means to remain uninsured, I can’t fathom it. . . . the campaign effectively amounts to asking people to continue putting their well-being and livelihoods at risk for the good of the cause of keeping health care for sick people unaffordable.”
Kevin Drum of Mother Jones adds, “So not only are they going to be encouraging people to break the law, they're literally going to be encouraging people not to buy health insurance. Nice. I wonder if FreedomWorks plans to help out the first person who takes them up on this and then contracts leukemia? I'm guessing probably not. . . . It's times like this that words fail those of us with a few remaining vestiges of human decency.”
I don’t believe conservatives should discourage young people, or anyone else, from buying health insurance. Conservatives and others should, however, give people all the information that’s relevant to their decision. Surely no one can argue against that?
Accurate information would include the real state of the law. Drum may have missed it, but there was a Supreme Court decision about Obamacare in 2012. Five justices ruled that Congress does not have the power to order people to buy health insurance. The controlling opinion specifically denied that it would be illegal for anyone to refrain from buying insurance. So, no, FreedomWorks wouldn’t be encouraging people to break the law.
The other thing Drum misses is that people who “contract leukemia” will be able to buy insurance once they’re sick at the same rate they could have gotten it for when they were well. That’s the part of the Obamacare law that its defenders are usually most keen to emphasize. People who go without insurance while they’re healthy may have to pay a tax -- although even at that the Internal Revenue Service will be limited in its methods of collection -- and may, if they get sick, find their options for getting insurance limited for a few months.
People who are very risk-averse may still decide to buy insurance knowing all this. The law clearly reduces the incentive to get it, though, and even before it passed a significant number of people who could afford insurance opted out.
The new incentives also make a hash of Jonathan Cohn’s argument in the New Republic about Republican “sabotage.” Democrats, he points out, never tried to get senior citizens to refuse to sign up for the prescription-drug benefit that Republicans enacted during the George W. Bush administration. Well, obviously: That benefit really was an unequivocal benefit for recipients, and nobody ever tried to deny that people who signed up would be better off for having done so. The new law is a much worse deal for many people.
Beutler is right, on the other hand, to say that if too few healthy people join the exchanges, they won’t work. (Maybe it was a mistake to write a law that depends on people’s acting against their self-interest.) But there are better ways for people to help their fellows than taking a bad deal on Obama’s insurance exchanges. Some of us even think that hastening the collapse of the law is one of those ways.
Cohn is an optimist about how many young people will sign up for the exchanges. He notes, for example, that the Obama administration is pretty good at outreach to young people. But getting people to give up a few minutes of their time to vote isn’t at all like getting them to give up a significant chunk of money.
I suspect that FreedomWorks is overestimating the effect of political campaigns one way or the other. If people decide that the law has made buying insurance a waste of money, they won’t do it. This law sabotages itself.
(Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)