George Will: Headed on a path to extinction?

By GEORGE WILL Published: January 20, 2013
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Roberts noted that a person earning $35,000 a year would pay a $60 monthly tax and someone earning $100,000 would pay $200. But the cost of a qualifying insurance policy is projected to be $400 a month. Clearly, it would be sensible to pay $60 or $200 rather than $400, because if one becomes ill, “guaranteed issue” assures coverage and “community rating” means that one's illness will not result in higher insurance rates.

So, Lambert says, the ACA's penalties are too low to prod the healthy to purchase insurance, even given ACA's subsidies for purchasers. The ACA's authors probably understood this perverse incentive and assumed that once Congress passed the ACA with penalties low enough to be politically palatable, Congress could increase them.

But Roberts' decision limits Congress' latitude by holding that the small size of the penalty is part of the reason it is, for constitutional purposes, a tax. It is not a “financial punishment” because it is not so steep that it effectively prohibits the choice of paying it.

Unable to increase penalties substantially, Congress, in the context of “guaranteed issue” and “community rating,” has only one way to induce healthy people to purchase insurance. This is by the hugely expensive process of increasing premium subsidies enough to make negligible the difference between the cost of insurance to purchasers and the penalty for not purchasing. Republicans will ferociously resist exacerbating the nation's financial crisis in order to rescue the ACA.

Because the penalties are constitutionally limited by the reasoning whereby Roberts declared them taxes, he may have saved the ACA's constitutionality by sacrificing its feasibility. So as the president begins his second term, the signature achievement of his first term looks remarkably rickety.

WASHINGTON POST WRITERS GROUP



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