For Republicans, the idea of requiring every American to have health insurance is one of the most abhorrent provisions of the Democrats' health overhaul bills.
"Congress has never crossed the line between regulating what people choose to do and ordering them to do it," said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT). "The difference between regulating and requiring is liberty."
But Hatch's opposition is ironic, or some would say, politically motivated. The last time Congress debated a health overhaul, when Bill Clinton was president, Hatch and several other senators who now oppose the so-called individual mandate actually supported a bill that would have required it.
In fact, says Len Nichols of the New America Foundation, the individual mandate was originally a Republican idea. "It was invented by Mark Pauly to give to George Bush Sr. back in the day, as a competition to the employer mandate focus of the Democrats at the time."
The 'Free-Rider Effect'
Pauly, a conservative health economist at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, says it wasn't just his idea. Back in the late 1980s — when Democrats were pushing not just a requirement for employers to provide insurance, but also the possibility of a government-sponsored single-payer system — "a group of economists and health policy people, market-oriented, sat down and said, 'Let's see if we can come up with a health reform proposal that would preserve a role for markets but would also achieve universal coverage.' "
The idea of the individual mandate was about the only logical way to get there, Pauly says. That's because even with the most generous subsidies or enticements, "there would always be some Evel Knievels of health insurance, who would decline coverage even if the subsidies were very generous, and even if they could afford it, quote unquote, so if you really wanted to close the gap, that's the step you'd have to take."
One reason the individual mandate appealed to conservatives is because it called for individual responsibility to address what economists call the "free-rider effect." That's the fact that if a person is in an accident or comes down with a dread disease, that person is going to get medical care, and someone is going to pay for it.
"We called this responsible national health insurance," says Pauly. "There was a kind of an ethical and moral support for the notion that people shouldn't be allowed to free-ride on the charity of fellow citizens."
Republican, Democratic Bills Strikingly Similar
So while President Clinton was pushing for employers to cover their workers in his 1993 bill, John Chafee of Rhode Island, along with 20 other GOP senators and Rep. Bill Thomas of California, introduced legislation that instead featured an individual mandate. Four of those Republican co-sponsors — Hatch, Charles Grassley of Iowa, Robert Bennett of Utah and Christopher Bond of Missouri — remain in the Senate today.
The GOP's 1993 measure included some features Republicans still want Democrats to consider, including damage award caps for medical malpractice lawsuits.
But the summary of the Republican bill from the Clinton era and the Democratic bills that passed the House and Senate over the past few months are startlingly alike.
Beyond the requirement that everyone have insurance, both call for purchasing pools and standardized insurance plans. Both call for a ban on insurers denying coverage or raising premiums because a person has been sick in the past. Both even call for increased federal research into the effectiveness of medical treatments — something else that used to have strong bipartisan support, but that Republicans have been backing away from recently.
'A Sad Testament'
Nichols, of the New America Foundation, says he's depressed that so many issues that used to be part of the Republican health agenda are now being rejected by Republican leaders and most of the rank and file. "I think it's a sad testament to the state of relations among the parties that they've gotten to this point," he said.
And how does economist Pauly feel about the GOP's retreat from the individual mandate they used to promote? "That's not something that makes me particularly happy," he says.