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Mystery of the disappearing mandate

The Wall Street Journal’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Obamacare editorialist broke a big story earlier this week in “Obamacare’s secret mandate exemption.” Taking a close look at some technical bulletins including this one, the editorial reports that the Obamacare mandate is pulling a magical disappearing act:

Now all you need to do is fill out a form attesting that your plan was cancelled and that you “believe that the plan options available in the [ObamaCare] Marketplace in your area are more expensive than your cancelled health insurance policy” or “you consider other available policies unaffordable.”

This lax standard—no formula or hard test beyond a person’s belief—at least ostensibly requires proof such as an insurer termination notice. But people can also qualify for hardships for the unspecified nonreason that “you experienced another hardship in obtaining health insurance,” which only requires “documentation if possible.” And yet another waiver is available to those who say they are merely unable to afford coverage, regardless of their prior insurance. In a word, these shifting legal benchmarks offer an exemption to everyone who conceivably wants one.

Our man on the editorial board returned to the subject yesterday, communing on Queen Seeb’s congressional testimony on Wednesday. The editorial reports:

There have been dozens of ObamaCare delays or major revisions via administrative fiat, including four so far this year, but there’s one in particular that the Health and Human Services Department prefers to keep hidden: the individual mandate waivers that we exposed Wednesday.

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius also happened to testify Wednesday in front of the HouseWays and Means Committee, and Tennessee Republican Diane Black asked about “ObamaCare’s Secret Mandate Exemption” (March 12). Ms. Sebelius said she hadn’t read the editorial but did call Ms. Black’s gloss “not accurate”—before going on to confirm that it was, in fact, accurate.

Here let me digress for a moment. Readers of the New York Times remain in a cloud of unknowing on this matter, as on so many others. The Times hasn’t caught up with the mandate’s magical disappearing act. In his story headlined “Health mandate won’t be delayed, Sebelius says,” Times reporter Robert Pear led with this paragraph:

Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services, said Wednesday that the Obama administration would not extend the deadline for people to sign up for health insurance or delay the requirement for most Americans to have coverage.

Pear makes no mention of Rep. Black or the Journal editorial that triggered her question. Unless the purpose is to keep readers in the dark, this is a pitiful performance.

According to the Journal, the Obamacare mandate is disappearing, or being disappeared. If so, the purpose would be entirely political. As the second of the editorials puts it: “The truth is that the White House is trying to shield Democrats in advance from the millions of angry voters who will be penalized for not buying into ObamaCare. Such raw politics helps explain why Ms. Sebelius won’t be ‘accurate’ about relaxing enforcement of the individual mandate.”

I can’t make those two sentences add up. If the purpose is political, to shield Democrats from the wrath of voters at the polls, doesn’t the relaxation of the mandate need to be publicized? Doesn’t credit need to be taken?

Yet if the relaxation of the mandate were to be publicized — if credit for it were to be taken — the whole bloody house of cards would fall down. The administration is walking a mighty fine line to protect the power it has appropriated in the takeover it has engineered.

Peter Suderman’s approach to interpreting what is going on here comports with the sense that a balancing act is underway: “Mostly, it’s a mechanism that allows the administration to have it both ways: Of course the mandate is absolutely essential to the law, and of course practically anyone who wants out of it can get an exemption on a hardship basis. But that approach also reveals the tough spot administration officials are in with regards to the mandate: They don’t want to remove the requirement, but they don’t really want to enforce it either.”

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