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What’s So Wrong About Jailing People For Being Uninsured?

November 18, 2009

Just a quick post to get something off my chest. I’ve recently been ‘sparring’ with a handful of conservatives on Twitter about a gross lie being spread regarding the House health care bill. There is much confusion in conservative quarters, but the upshot is that they claim we will be sending people to prison for not having insurance. This is nothing but pure and utter poppycock. I don’t believe that all those twits I have encountered were purposefully lying. It’s much worse than that: they believe it!

Here’s the thing: the House bill (H.R. 3962) sets an individual mandate to carry basic health insurance; just like we are all required to carry basic auto insurance. There is an argument to be made that with auto insurance, one has the choice to opt out by simply not owning a vehicle. Of course, that is not possible in this case. Everyone is going to require health care at some point. (Hopefully it is early, as in preventative care, but I digress…) In today’s system, if you choose to not carry health insurance, there is no government imposed penalty for doing so. If you’re lucky, you won’t get sick; but chances are you won’t receive preventative care, either. That means that when you do eventually get sick, there will be much bigger expenses. What happens if you’re involved in an accident? It could be a ski or snowboarding accident, a car crash, you could cut off your finger cooking dinner…who knows? Worse, what if you get cancer or another life-threatening illness? (I know far too many young women with breast cancer; a young man with a brain aneurysm; still more with congenital problems unknown at birth.) It’s a gamble, and as with any gambling, you may win for a while, but eventually everyone loses.

What happens then? In today’s system, you either forgo care altogether, possibly leading to death; find some doctor or hospital willing to treat you without insurance, incurring deep personal debt, possibly leading to bankruptcy; or you hit up the emergency room, which can’t legally turn you away, but is no more than a triage unit. (That last one still leads to debt: emergency rooms can’t turn you away, but they’re not free and you will be billed, again leading to debt and possible bankruptcy. Plus, you can’t get emergency room care for cancer and other chronic illness. (I would be remiss if I did not also mention that if, at this point, you chose to get insurance you’d be what is colloquially called SOL due to that pre-existing condition.))  So what, right? You’re an adult, you can make the choice to gamble with your own physical and financial life, right? Yes. In today’s system that’s true. But it’s wrong.

It’s wrong because it’s not just your financial life you’re gambling with, it’s everyone’s. For one thing, uninsured, unhealthy workers cost billions of dollars in lost productivity every year. Personal bankruptcies don’t just affect the people filing for bankruptcy, but the economy as a whole. Can’t pay your creditors? You’re depriving  them, their employees and their investors of capital. When that hospital can’t collect from you, it’s the tax payer that foots the bill for your care. (Of course, not at full price, so you’re also affecting the staff and other available services at that hospital.) My point is that choosing to not carry health insurance is selfish and irresponsible.

So back to that big lie. What about people that don’t get insured once the mandate is in place? There are many, many people that simply cannot afford insurance. For those that do not qualify for existing programs, like Medicaid (which will be expanded), coverage will be subsidized. For those that still cannot afford coverage (and unfortunately that will still be the case for some), there will be exemptions. If you can afford coverage, you will be required to carry it. Of course, you still have a choice. You may choose not to carry health insurance, and instead you will pay an additional personal income tax of 2.5% on your adjusted gross income. That’s all H.R. 3962 says on the subject.

So where does the big lie about jailing people for not having insurance come from? It’s all about the tax penalty. See, if you choose not to get insurance and you choose not to pay the tax, you become guilty of tax evasion. Then you’ve got the IRS to deal with. However, it should be noted that tax evasion charges usually stem from a failure to file (it’s not a crime to owe the IRS, it is a crime to not file. So if you file, without falsifying your liabilities,  but can’t pay the additional tax, you’re safe from tax evasion charges.) If you are a right-wing-nut-case that chooses to deny your tax liability, either through a false return, or by not paying any taxes at all, you’ll have a problem. At that point, the IRS can impose additional tax penalties, and in extreme cases they can indeed prosecute and imprison you. Is that likely to happen when the penalty tax for the average adjusted gross income in the US would be less than $1500? No. The IRS is not spending its scarce resources going after jail time for people with $1500 obligations. In fact, the IRS typically bends over backwards to work with people that have difficulty with back taxes. There are three kinds of people that go to jail for tax evasion: 1) tax protesters that refuse to file;  2) smart-asses that refuse to cooperate; and 3) high-profile people (think: Wesley Snipes.)

This whole lie is one giant red herring, specifically crafted by special interests and fed to a gullible public through media sources like The HillThe Washington Times and of course, Fox “News“. Why would they do such a thing? Just take a quick look at the conservative groups most active and vocal right now. Call them tea-partiers, teabaggers, “conservative independents”, doesn’t matter. What’s the one thing that resonates with them all; that gets them all riled up (besides a black President)? Taxes. Taxes. Taxes. And since they’re also all screaming about tyranny, why not throw in government internment, as well? Sounds like a winner, huh?

No. Because it’s stupid. I try, I really do, while debating these issues, to remain civil and calm and to not disparage others. But sometimes you’ve just got to say, “enough!” This is stupid, this is idiotic.  Anyone allowing themselves to fall victim to this campaign of lies needs to pull their head out (we’ll say of the sand) and get themselves educated! Try some different media sources, google something, just don’t sit in an echo chamber getting your information from others as misinformed as yourself. I’ve looked through these sources myself, and the funniest/saddest part is that the worst offenders are within the comment sections and forums. Like I said: echo chambers.

I look at my opening and laugh to see that this was supposed to be a short post. I guess I had a lot to unload. If you made it this far through my post, even if just a cursory glance, please take this away: The nation as a whole, and each of us as individuals, will be better off when we are all insured. Better both physically and economically. It is selfish to not do your part to keep yourself as healthy as possible. It is selfish to place your own short term financial gamble ahead of your community. And for the record, if you are able to afford health insurance, and choose not to carry it, you deserve the tax penalty. It’s called society, why not be a part of it?

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22 Comments leave one →
  1. January 31, 2010 2:11 pm

    That’s ridiculous to jail people for not having insurance. Jailing someone is a big thing, and can devastate their life. That is such a ridiculous thing to say.

  2. Adante permalink
    January 29, 2010 12:55 pm

    You shouldn’t jail people for not having health insurance – you should try to find ways to make health insurance cheaper for everyone. If everyone was forced to pay the real cost of health care even you’d be in jail lil lady!!

    • February 1, 2010 10:44 pm

      If everyone carries insurance, the risk pool is enlarged, thus bringing down the cost of insurance. There are a lot of other ways to make health care less expensive, this is just one. Still, seems as though you read the headline & that was that. I am not advocating jailing people, I am pointing out the idiocy of the people claiming that this will happen. Please re-read the piece, and see if you can’t follow that argument.

  3. January 28, 2010 10:29 pm

    I wanted to say nice site and thanks for those posts!
    Come check out mine too at your free time!
    Keep blogging!


  4. December 11, 2009 5:57 pm

    Many of these people(not real conservatives) believe the worst in people and see the world as takers you have to take from before they take from you.

    It’s really a disturbing way to view the world.

  5. November 27, 2009 7:38 pm

    Cassandra, you are so right!

    What really discredits most of the “teabaggers” was their complete silence during the budget-busting Bush-Cheney years. Where was their concern about government spending when Bush and Cheney turned the Clinton administration’s budget surplus into the biggest deficits in history? Where was their concern about civil liberties when Bush and Cheney established the Guantanamo prison camp, when they ordered illegal wiretapping, and when they ordered torture of prisoners? Where was their devotion to the Constitution when Bush and Cheney started not one but two wars of aggression solely on their own orders, without the required declaration of war by Congress?

    I’ll tell you where they were: Nowhere, because Bush and Cheney are white Republicans who were starting wars and hurting working people. The whole righteous outrage thing is just partisan posturing and racism, in my opinion.

  6. November 23, 2009 3:19 am

    I find many of the arguments in the article and comments specious. The selfishness argument is used all the time by Socialist Dems. The government consumes a huge part of our incomes. This money is used reward supporters with favors. Despite all the government social welfare programs, the standard of living for many is falling – but the government demands more and more.

    Now, if I could keep more of my own income – I would share it with family and donate it to charity. But, as it stands, so much is taken away that there is little left over to share with anyone.

    As living standards fall, government pushes new social programs. Living standards fall largely because government misallocates economic resources from more productive to less productive means. This reduces the wealth of society. It becomes a self-perpetuating downward economic spiral.

    Government offers more, people demand more, government takes more and on it goes. Human nature is selfish. That doesn’t justify selfishness, but it is true. The question is, what is the best solution for society that balances our selfish nature with providing for those who genuinely can’t provide for themselves. I believe the proper solution would be to shrink the government to the bare minimum size to defend the nation and fulfill its obligations under the Constitution.

    There would be more personal wealth, and I believe people would share with others more willingly without government constantly coming up with new schemes to build power and buy votes.

    Whenever you raid the public treasury to reward any interest group – whether that be political supporters, corporate interests, etc. the end result is always the same. The country is eventually economically and morally weakened until it collapses under its own weight – e.g., Rome.

    Sometimes good intentions lead to bad results – kind of like giving money to the guy on the street who uses it to buy alcohol and dies of cirrhosis of the liver. We ought to be charitable as a society. We should care for others. The problem with relying on government to solve these problems is that it corrupts our system and will ultimately devastate the economic engine that makes charity possible.

    It’s too easy to just say, “You’re selfish.” Few in this world are selfless. If I come up to you and ask me if you’ll give me your car, your iPod, your money, your shoes, etc., you’re likely going to say no. You would be right because you are being taken advantage of. It is easier at an individual level to see who is and isn’t taking advantage of you. In a huge bureaucratic system, it becomes more difficult and much more costly.

    There are many selfish demands being made today – companies that want to be bailed out despite poorly planning for the future. Banks wanting to be bailed out after they got into multiple industries outside of banking and began investing in exotic derivatives, etc. Hey, I would love it if someone would pay down all my debt, paid off my house, picked up my medical tab, etc., but I don’t believe it is the right thing for society to do. It would be selfish on my part to ask or demand that.

    These matters aren’t simple. It’s not like we’re two kids cutting up the last piece of cake and trying to make sure we both get the same sized pieces. It’s cliche, but there is nothing free. Money given comes with strings. I don’t want the strings of government money and I don’t like the medium to long-term consequences of where health care reform will lead. It’s only selfish in the way that not giving money to the alcoholic was selfish.

    • November 23, 2009 6:52 am

      Terry, did you realize that in your second sentence where you call out “Socialist Dems” you lose all credibility since you clearly don’t know what socialism is yet you brand Democrats with it anyway? Look up what real socialism is and you’ll realize that the Democratic party is far, far from it. As a single example a real socialist would find the public option abhorrent and insist on a completely government-owned health care system like Great Britain’s. Or like our Veterans Administration, by the way. Even Canada’s single-payer system has privately owned hospitals and independent doctors so isn’t remotely socialist, quite similar to Medicare.

      And then the verbal contortionism starts and boy do you pack it in tightly. You repeatedly talk about how selfish people are all the while claiming that if people have more money they’ll happily give more away. Which is it? Are we selfish creatures? Or are we selfless? And to top of off you whine about your taxes. Even if you’re in the highest tax bracket (and for your sake I hope you are) your taxes are still lower than they have been in the US even in the last 20 years and they’re vastly lower than every other industrialized nation on Earth – all of whom provide their people with health care, by the way.

      Here’s a fun fact; Barack Obama hasn’t raised anyone’s taxes yet. Frankly he needs to (including mine) because we have to dig out from the massive debt and deficit left by George Bush and all Presidents before him. Can you name the most fiscally conservative and responsible President in the last 50 years? Who’s the only one to actually balance a budget and run a surplus? I’ll give you a hint: his wife is our Secretary of State right now. Take a look at for more information.

      Under Bill Clinton and even under George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan the average tax load was higher, especially on the top earners. Were you complaining then too?

      It’s a simple fact that civil society costs money and we all have to contribute to policies we don’t like. Do you think I want tax breaks (aka: subsidies) going to organizations who tell me that I’ll burn in hell for not believing in their particular invisible friend? Do I want my money giving refunds to the most profitable companies in the country many of whom hide as much as possible off-shore? No, but I accept that as part of my patriotic duty and fortune of being an American citizen.

      Even more to the point do I think we should be paying over $1trillion for a war of choice that has killed over 4600 Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis? Hell no, but I was given no choice on the matter. Frankly I’d rather that money to go saving lives than taking them. In fact, the Bush tax cuts for the ultra-wealthy (many of whom are my friends in NYC and, believe it or not, most of whom recognize their good fortune and are comfortable giving some back) would have more than paid for a very generous public option rather than be squandered on one more house, or one more Gulfstream jet.

      Yes, people are selfish by nature. That’s what allowed us to survive evolution. At some point, though, we need to rise above our greedy animal instincts and help our fellow humans. Most of us won’t do it willingly, at least not to the degree necessary. So we’ve created governments. And while they all may suck, ours sucks the least especially when it helps those with the worst lot in life.

      And if you want to see a real tax burden look at France or the UK. Just try not to peek at their happiness levels, their life expectancy or just about any other, non-financial, measure of success. You may get jealous.

      • November 23, 2009 8:16 am

        My hat’s off to you Absurdist! As I was reading Terry’s comment, I was composing my answer in my head and lo and behold you hit every point head on.

        I particularly like the fact that you capture the notion that we are imperfect living in an imperfect system, but the best one going at the moment.

        You can’t keep government bare bones and then expect folks who Terry acknowledges are selfish to do their fair share.

        Oh one more thing: “Do you think I want tax breaks (aka: subsidies) going to organizations who tell me that I’ll burn in hell for not believing in their particular invisible friend?” — ROTFLMAO!! That is truly classic! I love it.

      • Tex Taylor permalink
        February 2, 2010 7:36 pm

        Absurdist, appropriately name.

        Here’s a fun fact; Barack Obama hasn’t raised anyone’s taxes yet. Frankly he needs to (including mine) because we have to dig out from the massive debt and deficit left by George Bush and all Presidents before him. Can you name the most fiscally conservative and responsible President in the last 50 years? Who’s the only one to actually balance a budget and run a surplus? I’ll give you a hint: his wife is our Secretary of State right now.

        The key word being yet. You call G.W. Bush for creating a mess, yet you happened to have missed we’ve had Democratic Congress since Nov. 2006. I believe if you were to read the “rules”, you might note Congress holds the checkbook. You brag of the Clinton surpluses, yet the record says otherwise:

        Clinton was in no way a fiscal conservative and in fact never ran a surplus. You should get your information from some place other than MSNBC. The truth is, Clinton was a benefactor of serendipity of an overinflated stock market and little more.

        Now, if you want to talk about a real mess, let’s take a look at the Obama projected deficits:

        They say if you can tell a lie long enough, at least some of it becomes fact. I believe your post proved that point.

  7. November 21, 2009 10:06 pm

    Isn’t it funny how conservatives cry fascism when it is convenient for them? They don’t want the government in between you and your doctor (hence their opposition to the public option) but they DO want the government to tell you that you cannot get an abortion.

    Liberals hardly have a monopoly on inconsistency.

  8. November 21, 2009 11:04 am

    Because its fascist. Funny how the same people that are pro abortion and say “the government hands off my body” are ok with the government controlling your entire health. Pro choice on abortion, no choice for everything else.

  9. November 20, 2009 2:30 pm

    Well Cassandra, hmm I don’t how feel about this one! A tax penalty I did not know about this. On the surface just hearing about it sounds very very socialist.. But with a problem as big and complex as HCR I guess drastic measures need to be put in in order to solve this huge problem. By the way love the use of the word Puppycock, lol

    • November 20, 2009 9:58 pm

      Very very socialist? Really? The thing is, you can’t eliminate restrictions on pre-existing conditions if you don’t also have a mandate to carry coverage. Otherwise you have people that game the system by remaining uninsured (and thus not contributing funds) until they get sick & need coverage. If there are no pre-existing condition restrictions, they can then buy coverage & receive benefits without having ever contributed.
      So, if a mandate to carry coverage is necessary, it has to be enforced with some sort of penalty. Can you imagine the uproar if the bill included the creation of a new agency to impose and collect fines? Besides the uproar, it would be redundant, when the IRS is very capable of performing that function.
      People don’t like that it’s called a tax, but the beauty of that is that it then works on a sliding scale. The less you make, the less the taxpenalty.
      Personally, I’d rather we all stopped paying premiums through our employers, paid a bit more tax & had true single-payer, universal coverage. Everyone would save money, competition (for actual medical services) would be maximized, and we would end up with better outcomes due to more access to preventative care. But then you’d REALLY call that socialist.

      • November 21, 2009 5:59 pm

        No you miss understood me maybe I should have I can see how other people on the surface would call it socialist or fascist, because if you take a step back and look at the problem in its entirety and complexity you then understand the the reasoning behind most of the stuff in the HCR bill. The thing is that most of the American people don’t do that and they only hear sound bites in the media and get info form their friends to form an opinion.In short the American people are stupid! I am a huge supporter of the public option and I don’t believe health care should be a for profit business for insurance companies. Its fine if doctors and medical staffs earn all the money they can and they should continue to be one of the highest paid professions there is.

  10. November 19, 2009 8:53 pm

    Awesome video. Thanks for sharing that, Rutherford.

  11. November 19, 2009 7:14 am

    When I saw the headline for this post I assumed it was about auto insurance. Wow.

    This is some crazy stuff.

  12. November 18, 2009 10:21 pm

    Well said. At the end of the reform it would be better if we could eliminate all health care premiums while paying a bit more in taxes instead resulting in single-payer a la Medicare. Those of us with coverage now would pay less. Those of us without coverage now would have it. And we can rein in exploding costs. Literally everybody is a winner.

    Those who claim it would reduce choice are completely backwards. With Medicare-for-all as the only payer every doctor would accept it so you would be able to choose *any* doctor and *any* hospital *any* time you need it. THAT is choice. Betcha can’t do that now.

    When you look around the world and see that every other industrialized nation has universal coverage anything short is a national embarrassment.

  13. November 18, 2009 9:47 pm

    This notion that the healthy should not pay for the care of the sick is just another chapter in America’s growing selfishness. This idea was represented succinctly by CNBC’s Rick Santelli back when the stimulus was approved and Rick complained about “winners” bailing out “losers”. It makes me worry about what is happening to the collective conscience of America.

    As if you needed more proof of the echo chamber warping the minds of its occupants, look at this video of totally clueless Palin supporters (or should I say fans) proudly displaying their ignorance to MSNBC’s Norah O’Donnell.

    • November 18, 2009 10:31 pm

      The best part is the accidental wisdom of that Palin fan when asked about Sarah’s support of the bailout. “Well, I think if you asked her about it today…” Precisely! If you were to ask her about it today (it’s unpopular) she would try her damnedest to back-peddle & blame the whole thing on the McCain campaign. “I didn’t know…it’s what I was told to say…” (Yet she has the nerve to call her book ‘Going Rogue’.)
      Baaahhh…Enough about her
      THx for the laughs

    • January 2, 2010 11:53 am

      Wonderfully succinct.

      Following you on Twitter. This says what’s been on the tip of my tongue for weeks.

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