Regressive and Unaffordable

By Marcia Angell
June 5, 2009

There would be no need for an individual mandate in a single-payer system, since everyone would be covered automatically and it would be paid for through their income and payroll taxes. So asking me, a supporter of a single-payer health system, about mandates is a little like asking someone whether he's stopped beating his wife.

Only a single-payer system would stop the private insurance industry from holding us hostage.

But even within our current system, I'm troubled by the notion of an individual mandate. I live in Massachusetts, where we have one. It requires people to buy private insurance at whatever price the companies choose to charge. As might be expected, this is a windfall for the insurance industry. Premiums are rising much faster than income, benefit packages are getting skimpier, and deductibles and co-payments are going up.

Many people can't afford the premiums for the best plans, and so have to choose bare-bones, low-premium plans with high deductibles and co-payments. They are then left with insurance that they might not be able to afford to use, but have to purchase anyway.

A mandate is also extremely regressive. In Massachusetts, mandated insurance and co-payments can amount to nearly a third of income. Income taxes apportion the costs of public services more fairly, and I see no reason not to adopt that approach in paying for health care. To be sure, President Obama has said he would exempt people from the mandate who couldn't afford to purchase their own health insurance. But aren't these precisely the people most in need of it? Massachusetts has exempted 62,000 people from the mandate for that reason.

I would hope the President and Congress would come up with something less regressive and truly universal, and stop holding the rest of us hostage to the private insurance industry.

Marcia Angell is a senior lecturer in social medicine at Harvard Medical School and former editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine.