DC Passes Law Requiring People To Buy Health Insurance Or Have Their Property Seized

DC Passes Law Requiring People To Buy Health Insurance Or Have Their Property Seized

The D.C. mandate contains three elements that make it just as bad as, if not worse than, the federal mandate it is intended to replace.
Christopher Jacobs
By

Just when you think the move for government control of health care couldn’t get any worse, somehow it manages to. Last Wednesday, the District of Columbia City Council approved a requirement for all DC residents to purchase health insurance. The mandate would take effect in January, right when the federal mandate penalty drops to $0, as per last year’s tax law.

The D.C. mandate contains three elements that make it just as bad as, if not worse than, the federal mandate it is intended to replace.

A (Deliberately?) Opaque Process

Suffice it to say that the district’s individual mandate did not attract much attention. Unlike last week’s initiative vote on raising wages for tipped workers, or the battle over “right-to-die” legislation in the nation’s capital, restoring the individual mandate has slipped below the news radar screen. Some online searching Thursday found no references to the D.C. Council’s mandate vote in the Washington Post, or (but for a brief blurb in Politico) other online news articles discussing recent developments.

A cynic might believe that the D.C. Council acted in such a low-key manner by design. The council did not approve the mandate as a stand-alone bill, but wrapped it into a 297-page Budget Support Act. That bill contains such unrelated provisions as an amendment regarding the Fort Dupont Ice Arena, technical corrections to a supermarket tax incentive program, and amendments regarding civic associations using public schools.

Likewise, a press release by the D.C. Council summarizing Wednesday’s meeting contained not a word about imposing the individual mandate, nor did the council website show any stand-alone votes on the mandate itself. This lack of disclosure pushed me to contact my council member, Charles Allen, to find out what had happened at the council meeting Wednesday.

Upon hearing that the mandate as passed of a much larger package, I asked one of Allen’s staffers whether this provision had been “snuck in at the last minute.” The staffer said DC Mayor Muriel Bowser had proposed the mandate as part of her budget submission to the council back in March. He then rather sheepishly added that, while people had testified on behalf of other portions of the Budget Support Act, no one had spoken about the mandate specifically.

These circumstances make it quite reasonable to ask whether Bowser and the D.C. Council deliberately contrived a set of circumstances to avoid public scrutiny of the mandate. Placing the provision among hundreds of pages of technical and relatively non-controversial amendments—and not even highlighting its approval in a press release summarizing the meeting—seems designed to avoid a high-profile debate. A vote on a stand-alone bill imposing a mandate could create political controversy, so the council may have conspired to avoid it.

For a district that decries “Taxation Without Representation,” this Nancy Pelosi-esque behavior—where we literally had to pass the bill to find out what was in it—seems to embody the very congressional tactics that DC leaders love to hate.

Harsher Penalties for Violators

During the 2009-10 debate on Obamacare, the threat of penalties for violating the individual mandate became a source of intense controversy. During the Senate Finance Committee’s markup, Sen. John Ensign (R-NV) received a handwritten note from Thomas Barthold, head of the Joint Committee on Taxation, stating that, under federal law, non-payment of the mandate tax could result in imprisonment. Democrats buckled under this political pressure, removing from the Internal Revenue Service the power to imprison violators, or impose liens on personal property, for non-payment of the mandate tax.

By contrast, the district’s mandate—which comprises pages 168-182 of the Budget Support Act—includes this language at the bottom of page 180: “A taxpayer who fails to pay the District of Columbia shared responsibility payment imposed…shall be subject to all collection, enforcement, and administrative provisions applicable to unpaid taxes or fees, as provided in Chapter 18, Chapter 41, Chapter 42, Chapter 43, and Chapter 44 of this title [emphasis mine].”

Unlike the federal Internal Revenue Code, it does not appear at first glance that the district’s tax law allows for imprisoning individuals for non-payment of taxes (as opposed to deliberate tax evasion or fraud). However, Chapter 44 includes the following language:

If a person determined to be liable to the District of Columbia for a tax neglects or refuses to pay the tax within 10 days after notice and demand, the Mayor may collect the tax, with interest and penalties thereon (and an amount sufficient to cover the expenses of the levy), by levy upon all property (including rights to property) of the person or on which there is a lien provided in this chapter for the payment of the tax.

The statute goes on to say that “the term ‘levy’ includes the exercise of the power of distraint and seizure by any means.…If the Mayor levies upon property, the Mayor may seize and sell the property.” In other words, if a district resident won’t buy “government-approved” health insurance, and won’t (or can’t) pay the tax for not doing so, the district has the right to seize, and sell, that person’s property.

No wonder the D.C. Council didn’t want to hold an up-or-down vote on just this provision.

Hypocrisy Much?

Another relevant fact to the district’s mandate: The head of the District’s health insurance exchange—which recommended creating a DC mandate following the removal of the federal tax penalty—doesn’t buy exchange coverage herself. As I previously noted, many exchange heads (and Obamacare supporters) refuse to buy the coverage they promote, including the head of the district’s exchange, Mila Kofman.

When I discovered in late 2016 that I could not retain that plan in 2017, due in part to regulations imposed by the district’s exchange, I attended a meeting of the exchange authority. I asked Kofman whether she, and other exchange employees, purchased exchange coverage. She claimed that she and her colleagues could not purchase exchange policies, because they would lose their employer subsidy in the process.

Only later did I learn that Kofman was paid at the rate of more than $217,000 in late 2016—nearly three times the adjusted gross income I reported to the Internal Revenue Service that year. The idea that a bureaucrat making several multiples of my income would cry poverty, and claim she needed taxpayers to fund her health coverage in addition to her $200,000-plus salary, offended me then, and offends me now.

I don’t know whether Bowser and the DC Council behave similarly to Kofman, but I can guess. On Thursday afternoon, I e-mailed Bowser’s office asking about the DC insurance mandate, and whether Bowser received a taxpayer subsidy for her insurance coverage. (The district’s mayor receives a salary of $200,000 annually.) I also asked what Bowser would “say to District residents like me—who make far less in salary than she does, yet do not receive [taxpayer-]subsidized benefits—being forced to buy coverage under penalty not just of taxation, but of property seizures through DC’s tax enforcement mechanisms?”

Wouldn’t you know it: I have yet to receive a response.

Here Are Some Policy Solutions

Thankfully, several of the policy and process problems outlined above contain within them readily achievable solutions:

  • The D.C. Council should pass legislation requiring the mayor, council, exchange CEO, and exchange board members to buy coverage through the exchange—without using separate taxpayer-funded benefits available to other district employees.
  • If the council will not act, the Trump administration could promulgate regulations requiring the CEOs and board members of all state-run exchanges (including the district’s) to buy the coverage they promote and oversee.
  • Congress could also exercise its constitutional prerogatives and strike down the district’s individual mandate, ensuring that no individuals will have their property seized by an overzealous government if they cannot afford to buy “bureaucrat-approved” health insurance.

Better yet: The District of Columbia Council could decide to stop micromanaging its residents’ health care by surreptitiously passing onerous mandates in legislation that few district residents know about.

Mr. Jacobs is founder and CEO of Juniper Research Group, a policy consulting firm based in Washington. He is on Twitter: @chrisjacobsHC.

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