Why Paul Krugman Is Wrong About Health Mandates

December 1, 2007

Now there’s an intimidating headline to write. Paul Krugman slammed Barack Obama today on the issue of health mandates. Here’s why I believe he’s wrong:

From the beginning, advocates of universal health care were troubled by the incompleteness of Barack Obama’s plan, which unlike those of his Democratic rivals wouldn’t cover everyone.

Two misstatements in this opening sentence. First, while it’s true that Obama’s plan won’t “cover everyone,” neither will anyone else’s. Mandates have never achieved 100% effectiveness. The practical design problems of subsidies, exemptions, and benefit levels that accompany mandates are complex and unwieldy.  That’s why the Massachusetts Authority responsible for that state’s plan – which Krugman would describe as “covering everyone” – just exempted an estimated 20% of uninsured residents from the mandate.

Secondly, the absence of mandates is not necessarily an incompleteness in the Obama plan. I’ll be posting my conversation on this topic with Obama health advisor David Cutler shortly.

Here’s why: under the Obama plan, as it now stands, healthy people could choose not to buy insurance — then sign up for it if they developed health problems later. Insurance companies couldn’t turn them away, because Mr. Obama’s plan, like those of his rivals, requires that insurers offer the same policy to everyone.

As a result, people who did the right thing and bought insurance when they were healthy would end up subsidizing those who didn’t sign up for insurance until or unless they needed medical care.

Mr. Krugman raises some valid concerns here. But what he doesn’t say is that this would only be a temporary problem under the Obama plan. If it failed to achieve enrollment rates high enough to offset this ‘selection effort,’ other measures would be used – including potentially mandates.

The main difference between Obama’s plan and his rivals’ is this: They would mandate health coverage first and fix cost problems later. Obama would do the opposite. While both approaches are problematic, there is a strong case to be made that Obama’s plan is fairer – and much more politically progressive.

Mr. Obama claims that mandates won’t work, pointing out that many people don’t have car insurance despite state requirements that all drivers be insured. Um, is he saying that states shouldn’t require that drivers have insurance? If not, what’s his point?

His point is that the Clinton and Edwards claim – that they provide “universal coverage” – is false. If mandates don’t result in “universal coverage” – and the Massachusetts experience seems to confirm that – than this statement is hyperbole, not fact, and the debate is really about how many people to cover and how fast .  It’s not the black-and-white issue the campaigns are making it out to be.

Mr. Obama accuses his rivals of not explaining how they would enforce mandates, and suggests that the mandate would require some kind of nasty, punitive enforcement: “Their essential argument,” he says, “is the only way to get everybody covered is if the government forces you to buy health insurance. If you don’t buy it, then you’ll be penalized in some way.”

Well, John Edwards has just called Mr. Obama’s bluff, by proposing that individuals be required to show proof of insurance when filing income taxes or receiving health care. If they don’t have insurance, they won’t be penalized — they’ll be automatically enrolled in an insurance plan.

That’s a “terrific idea” with no penalties, Mr. Krugman says. Okay, let’s amend Obama’s choice of words slightly: when people are enrolled in a plan automatically and then don’t pay the premiums they’ll be “penalized in some way.” That’s not hair-splitting – it’s a huge difference. If a family of four is enrolled in a health plan with $10,000 annual premiums, that’s a burden. What will happen if they don’t pay?

We’ll fix that with subsidies, says the mandate crowd. But how much will people actually pay? They’re not saying.

I recently castigated Mr. Obama for adopting right-wing talking points about a Social Security “crisis.” Now he’s echoing right-wing talking points on health care.

I agree with Mr. Krugman about the Social Security issue. And I understand the concern about the use of words like “forced” by the Obama campaign. I understand the concern about the use of words like “forced” by the Obama campaign.  But that’s mild compared to the words the GOP will use in 2008 – and they’ll say them no matter what Obama does or doesn’t do. So rather than crying “foul” when someone challenges them, the Clinton campaign and others should use this as an opportunity to sharpen their talking points – or primary voters may conclude they don’t have it in them to make their case when the going gets tough.

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3 Responses to “Why Paul Krugman Is Wrong About Health Mandates”


  1. […] Richard Eskow does a good job of deconstructing Krugman’s column at The Sentinel Effect. […]


  2. […] and the naysayers of Obama’s plan I’ve read is from a health policy blog called the Sentinel Effect. The blog interviews Obama health policy advisor David Cutler in December, and here’s his […]


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