Heads up: This is the biggest news story of the week, yet it's getting relatively little play. Team O inched closer to taking this step back in December, when they created a broad "hardship" exemption to the individual mandate tax for anyone whose plan had been cancelled under Obamacare and found the new rates unaffordable. Here's what we wrote at the time:
The administration is conceding that Obamacare itself, and specifically its high costs, is a "hardship" for millions. With that in mind, how can they justify not extending the same waiver to all uninsured people? Or all Americans, for that matter? Yes, people who've been dumped from their existing coverage are the immediate victims of Obamacare's most visible (for now) broken promise -- but if the administration is acknowledging that Obamacare's supposedly affordable coverage really isn't as advertised, that's not a problem that's unique to the newly uninsured. It applies to everybody affected by the law.
It was a question of fairness: How could the White House grant these broad and essentially verification-free waivers to one group of uninsured Americans, but not another? The fairness issue reared its head again when the administration announced its second employer mandate delay last month. Big businesses get a pass on a punitive mandate that hurts them, but small businesses, individuals and families aren't spared? Now we have our answers. In a very quiet regulatory shift issued just last week, the individual mandate tax "hardship" exemption was expanded to include pretty much anyone willing to "attest" that they've experienced some sort of trouble obtaining insurance. Behold, the hated individual mandate tax dying a quiet death in a stack of unheralded regulations (via the WSJ):
In 2013, HHS decided that ObamaCare's wave of policy terminations qualified as a "hardship" that entitled people to a special type of coverage designed for people under age 30 or a mandate exemption. HHS originally defined and reserved hardship exemptions for the truly down and out such as battered women, the evicted and bankrupts. But amid the post-rollout political backlash, last week the agency created a new category: 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.
That's exactly right. This change could easily apply to the entire uninsured population -- the vast majority of whom haven't signed up for Obamacare coverage, with most citing lack of affordability as the top reason. The White House recognizes that dispatching the president to practically beg people to think about canceling their cable or cell phones in order to pay for his law's "affordable" care isn't politically sustainable. Nor is the idea of millions of long-term uninsured Americans remaining without coverage, but getting slapped with resulting fines for the first time. So the mandate tax has, in effect, been regulated out of existence until 2016. Allahpundit declares the mandate tax "dead," slayed at the hands of a president who is systematically and single-handedly uprooting his own signature accomplishment:
The IRS was never going to enforce the mandate strictly this year, but now they don’t have to enforce it at all. Anyone who’s declined to buy insurance by April 1st can simply claim hardship and that’s that. This makes three major rule changes to the core components of ObamaCare in the past month alone: On February 10th, the White House delayed the employer mandate for small businesses until 2016, and then, 10 days ago, it extended for two more years the rule allowing insurers to un-cancel plans for consumers who want their old, cheaper coverage back. Little did we know until now that, on the same day, they also all but suspended the individual mandate until 2016. And like Levin says, it’s unlikely that they’ll ever bring it back. Why would the next president, eager to begin his/her term on a strong note, want to reinstate a harsh financial penalty for noncompliance with O-Care when the guy who signed the law was unwilling to? The mandate is dead. Obama’s repealing ObamaCare himself, piece by piece.
So why was this enormous change made with zero fanfare? Two reasons: First, the White House is already far behind its projected pace on enrollments. They've decided against trumpeting a huge disincentive to signing up in the midst of their enrollment period's home stretch. Second, this is all hugely embarrassing to the president. This mandate tax is the tent pole of this whole enterprise. It is what allowed the law to narrowly survive the Supreme Court's scrutiny. Obama has also repeatedly threatened to veto Republican efforts to delay the mandate tax through the legislative process. He did so most recently last week. Democrats allowed the government to shut down last fall when the GOP's central "ask" was to do...exactly what Obama has now unilaterally done on his own. Once the March 31 deadline passes, the White House will need to determine whether or not to publicize its expansive, all-inclusive "hardship waiver." (Again, they're admitting that the hardship is Obamacare itself). This delay was so nonchalant that it hardly generated any attention at all until the Journal picked up on it earlier in the week. Through opacity, the White House spared itself another horrible news cycle. But if people don't hear about these new, anything-goes waivers, anger over the unfair mandate tax could continue to simmer and hurt Democrats. Decisions, decisions. In any case, Obamacare -- as it was originally envisioned and passed -- is gone. Think about that. It's extraordinary.
Guy Benson is Townhall.com's Political Editor. Follow him on Twitter @guypbenson. He is co-authors with Mary Katharine Ham for their new book End of Discussion: How the Left's Outrage Industry Shuts Down Debate, Manipulates Voters, and Makes America Less Free (and Fun).
Author Photo credit: Jensen Sutta Photography
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