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Wall Street Journal: Coverage Mandate Under Fire

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Location: Washington, DC

Wall Street Journal: Coverage Mandate Under Fire

Conservatives have opened a new front in the health-care debate with the assertion that under the Democrats' plan, people who refuse to buy health insurance could spend five years in prison.

Supporters of a health overhaul called that a scare tactic along the lines of last summer's uproar over "death panels," and said that scenario would virtually never happen. But some conservatives have seized on the issue as a symbol of what they see as government overreach in the health bill approved by the House earlier this month.

The notion of imprisonment has its origins in the bill's requirement that most Americans must get health insurance, with the help of government subsidies if necessary, or pay a special income tax of up to 2.5%. If someone refuses to get insurance and refuses to pay the tax, that person would be guilty of tax evasion. Criminal penalties for willful tax evasion, which are pursued in rare cases, include a fine of as much as $250,000 and up to five years in prison for the most egregious cases, Republicans point out.

Rep. Peter Roskam (R., Ill.) said on the House floor that this means the health overhaul comes with handcuffs. "Now, I am not talking about figurative handcuffs," he added. "If you don't comply with the individual mandate, what happens to you? You can be subject to five years in prison and you can be subject to a quarter of a million dollars in fines."

Supporters of the health overhaul say this is a distortion and prosecutors don't pursue criminal penalties for tax evasion except in drastic cases. "It's like saying you could be jailed for jaywalking," said Rep. Robert Andrews (D., N.J.). "I'm sure there are some narrow circumstances in which that would happen, but it doesn't happen as a practical matter."

Rep. David Camp (R., Mich.) helped ignite the debate by requesting information on the issue from the Joint Committee on Taxation, a nonpartisan House-Senate panel that provides tax expertise to Congress.

The committee responded with a four-page letter on Nov. 5 describing the penalties for willful tax evasion, including the top penalty of a five-year sentence.

"This is the ultimate example of the Democrats' command-and-control style of governing--buy what we tell you or go to jail," Mr. Camp said.

The letter also made clear that the Internal Revenue Service pursued civil penalties, which carry no jail time, for the great majority of violators. Of the roughly 156 million tax returns filed in 2008, there were only about 100 criminal prosecutions for willful failure to pay taxes, Democrats said.

"The claim is wildly exaggerated and essentially false," Mr. Andrews said. "It virtually never happens. Usually there is a civil penalty for large nonfiling. It's just not the way the law works."

The "individual mandate" to buy health coverage has become one of the health debate's flashpoints.

Democrats, and some Republicans, say an efficient, fair health system requires everyone to buy insurance. Otherwise, they say, those who have it subsidize those who don't. And Democrats say their plan provides a hardship exemption, generous subsidies for many lower- and middle-income families, and expanded Medicaid coverage for the poor.

The issue has also arisen in the Senate, which is expected to begin its floor debate on the health overhaul within days. An amendment added in the health-overhaul bill passed by the Senate Finance Committee last month specified that no one can face prison or civil penalties for not paying the tax. Instead, an individual's tax refund can be reduced by the amount of the tax.

Opponents say the individual mandate contained in the health legislation, if enacted, could be the first time the U.S. government ordered its citizens to buy something or face punishment. Congress has no constitutional authority to impose such a demand, some critics said.

Supporters liken the idea to requiring car owners to buy auto insurance. It is necessary to prevent the uninsured from getting their health care by visiting emergency rooms, they say, which is expensive and transfers the cost to everyone else.

Congress has the constitutional right to enact such a law, Democrats and many legal scholars said, under its authority to regulate interstate commerce and its power to tax.


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