Sometimes the weatherman predicts a big storm that never materializes.
Politicians do the same thing, and right now many of them are warning that President Obama's 2010 healthcare reform law is about to come slamming into the nation like a once-a-century hurricane. Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney calls the law "an unfolding disaster for the American economy." His fellow candidate Rick Santorum routinely tells audiences that Obamacare "is the beginning of the end of freedom in America." Board up the windows. Hurry to the basement.
At the eye of this gathering storm is the "individual mandate," a key part of the law that will require most Americans to buy a minimum level of health insurance by 2014, or ask the feds for an exemption. Those in violation will have to pay a penalty fee that could be as high as the annual premium on a basic insurance plan. The mandate, which some people consider highly intrusive, generated court challenges almost as soon as Obama signed the law, with the Supreme Court now due to decide whether it's constitutional. (Oral arguments are scheduled for Monday morning.) If not, the whole reform scheme could unravel.
The landmark legislation, formally known as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, is a complex monstrosity that's hard to understand, and except for a few provisions, it hasn't even gone into effect yet. So it's not surprising that many Americans fear the worst from a federal bureaucracy they don't trust. But healthcare experts who do understand the individual mandate find less to worry about than the politicians predicting disaster. If they're right, the nation might even survive.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, for example, predicts that 80 percent of the 272 million Americans subject to the individual mandate requirement will have some form of health insurance in 2014, when the law goes into effect. So no government thugs will be hassling them about failing to comply. Another 48 million or so are automatically covered by Medicare, so nothing would change for them, either. Out of roughly 322 million Americans in 2014, that would leave about 54 million out of compliance with the individual mandate.
Many of those people would wriggle out from the requirement, however. The Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that 40 percent of the uninsured would qualify for an exemption from the individual mandate, for a variety of reasons. Their income could be too low, for one thing, or the cost of insurance could exceed 8 percent of their income, or they could qualify on religious or hardship grounds. That would reduce the pool of mandate violators to about 32 million Americans.
Many of those people would qualify for subsidies set up under the law, which are meant to encourage people to buy insurance and help them pay for it. Some of them, no doubt, would do what the law says, and buy health insurance. So the number of Americans truly subject to penalties for violating the mandate would be less than 10 percent of the population--perhaps far less. Kaiser notes that in Massachusetts, which enacted a statewide law similar to Obamacare in 2006, about 70 percent of the people without insurance qualify for an exemption, and only 1 percent of the population pays a fine for going without coverage. And there's been little uproar about lost freedoms or a wrecked economy.
Changes are always more intimidating when they're poorly understood, however, and that is certainly one reason that Obamacare is so controversial and highly divisive. Polls show that Americans are about evenly split on their view of the law, with many Republicans strongly opposed to it and many Democrats strongly in favor. At the same time, only about one third of Americans say they feel they understand the law--and their self-assessments may be overly generous.
Complexity, therefore, may be the real reason Obamacare spooks people. For starters, the law could end up remaking the whole healthcare system--which accounts for about one sixth of the U.S. economy--in ways nobody can predict. The U.S. healthcare system was a mess before Obamacare, with soaring costs and millions of families that couldn't afford care. But that doesn't mean that shaking things up will automatically improve it. Changing things merely for the sake of change often makes things worse, and people are right to be skeptical.
The new rules will also force millions of Americans to navigate one more government bureaucracy, even if they want to do the right thing. People without insurance who want to apply for either an exemption or a subsidy would have to determine where they reside on a kind of income-insurance matrix that measures the relative affordability of insurance, indexed for family size, regional cost of living, and other variables that will change every year. Maybe the government will devise a snazzy website or iPad app that simply requires users to punch in a few handy figures, then generates a set of step-by-step instructions that can be carried out in half an hour. But anybody who's tangled with the healthcare bureaucracy or a government agency is justified to say, "I'll believe it when I see it."
Meanwhile, in the four-year time vacuum between the passage of the law and the date it goes into effect, we've been left to ponder a mystifying set of new rules from a government that seems disinclined to do us any favors. Santorum's rant about endangered freedoms has gotten a surprising degree of traction, but maybe it shouldn't be that surprising. These days, the government ought to first prove its worth and effectiveness, and only then ask citizens to take a leap of faith and accept more complexity. It's hard to believe we need to make the system even more confusing in order to simplify it.
Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success, to be published in May. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.