Ethics Observation of the Week: the Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto

Dissecting a Washington Post op-ed in which Attorney General Eric Holder and HHS Secretary Kathleen Sibelius argued for the constitutionality of Obamacare,  Wall Street Journal wit and political commentator  James Taranto argued that the two Obama officials…

“…can’t even muster a coherent argument in favor of ObamaCare as a matter of policy. The op-ed opens with what is meant to be a heartstring-tugging anecdote:

‘In March, New Hampshire preschool teacher Gail O’Brien, who was unable to obtain health insurance through her employer, was diagnosed with an aggressive form of lymphoma. Her subsequent applications for health insurance were rejected because of her condition. . . .Then President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act. Thanks to this law, O’Brien is getting treatment through a temporary program that provides affordable coverage to people who’ve been shut out of the insurance market because of a preexisting condition. Even better, she knows that in 2014 insurers will be banned from discriminating against her or any American with preexisting conditions. . . .That’s what makes the recent lawsuits challenging the Affordable Care Act so troubling. . . . These attacks are wrong on the law, and if allowed to succeed, they would have devastating consequences for everyone with health insurance.

After the quote, Taranto continues,

“So why is it necessary to force people to buy insurance? Because [the op-ed says]:

“without an individual responsibility provision, controlling costs and ending discrimination against people with preexisting conditions doesn’t work: Imagine what would happen if everyone waited to buy car insurance until after they got in an accident. Premiums would skyrocket, coverage would be unaffordable, and responsible drivers would be priced out of the market.”

“You mean like Gail O’Brien, who waited until she was diagnosed with cancer before trying to buy health insurance?,” Taranto asks, adding,

“O’Brien is the victim of a terrible disease, but she is not, as Holder and Sebelius make her out to be, a victim of invidious discrimination. Her inability to purchase insurance is the natural result of her own decision not to do so when she was healthy. What do Holder and Sebelius call a law that seeks to force the rest of us to pay for the consequences of her action? An “individual responsibility provision.” This is not merely a euphemism but an Orwellian one.”

Bravo. There are good policy arguments to be made for eliminating health insurance exclusion of pre-existing conditions, especially when it involves denying coverage to children born with such conditions, or when a a change of insurance plans necessitated by a change in employment will risk losing coverage for an ongoing health problem. And the U.S. as a society may decide not to penalize too severely an irresponsible citizen who gambles on his or her good health, spends money that should have been spent on insurance on less practical goods, and then discovers that she is sick and uninsured. But what Holder and  Sibelius were presenting as a wrong needing righting was not just a little like the auto crash example they cited as unfair and irresponsible, it is exactly the same. In cases like Ms. O’Brien’s, the nation and the public is being asked to pay for her attempts to game the system. That’s fine, if we decide that’s the best thing to do, balancing all the interests involved, but calling something an “individual responsibility provision” when it rewards the irresponsible is insultingly dishonest.

One thought on “Ethics Observation of the Week: the Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto

  1. Seems to me if I could pay a small penalty each year that was drastically smaller than premiums, I could then buy my insurance from the exchanges when necessary.

    Companies have already done the math. $600 million penalty or $5 billion to provide healthcare? I think they’ll elect to send employees to the exchanges and pocket the profit.

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