Hillary Clinton and John Edwards may have attacked one another last night, but they’re in agreement about the health care mandate issue – and that’s unfortunate. Most Democratic health reform plans include mandated coverage, and that’s a mistake on both policy and political grounds (although the Edwards plan offsets that somewhat with some interesting use of public insurance).
The Las Vegas Democratic debate was long on play-acting, short on substance. Meaningful exchanges about policy were hard to come by, and only three come to mind: Clinton vs. Obama on Social Security, Clinton vs. Obama on health mandates, and Clinton vs. everybody on her Iran vote.
Re health mandates, Obama may well be on the right track. When Clinton boasts, as she did last night, that her plan provides universal healthcare, what she’s not saying is that it does that by punishing people who don’t pay usurious prices to private companies in order to obtain coverage. Obama had the right response, althouch he expressed it in a passionless and somewhat detached way.
The New York Times is correct when it says that “many experts agree that that without a mandate, some people would not get coverage.” In addition, a voluntary enrollment plan will suffer from “adverse selection”: The sick will be more likely to enroll than the healthy, which will make the plan financially unstable.
But I disagree with many of my fellow “health wonks” on mandates. I’ve said they’re the wrong solution. They address the “selection” problem, but only partially. Compliance will continue to be a problem under the “mandate” approach unless fairly Draconian enforcement rules are put in place. (That’s what Obama was alluding to with his “garnishing wages” comment, which many viewers may not have understood.)
Secondly, mandates could become a political disaster. They could turn a Democratic political positive – public frustration with healthcare – into a negative. It’s easy to picture the Republican candidate talking about “nanny state” rules that “invade your privacy and seize your wages.”
No health plan will succeed if it forces Americans to overpay for insurance, on the hope that selection issues and other initiatives bring prices down in the future. It makes more sense to provide every American with a basic government-funded health plan. From there, policy options might include trading plan credits for enrollment in a private plan, or the purchase of supplemental private insurance.
But mandating that Americans buy insurance from private companies is a political and policy mistake. It’s true that mandates are the conventional wisdom today – but then, so was the wisdom of Massachusetts’ mandate-driven health reform initiative. We disagreed then, and said that the “Massachusetts miracle” would have serious problems. It now appears that – sadly – we were right (see here and here and here).
It remains to be seen whether mandates are a “feature” or a “bug” in the Democratic platform.