On Twitter, President Donald Trump said he would be “using the power of the pen to give great HealthCare to many people — FAST.” He isn’t bluffing. His White House has been working on a series of executive actions on health insurance.
But his tweet is misleading. The most far-reaching action under consideration would not give anyone health care. Rather, it would dramatically reduce enforcement of Obamacare’s fines on people without insurance.
If he takes this action, Trump will be following in Barack Obama’s footsteps. In December 2013, President Obama had a problem. The regulations imposed by his health care law were causing some insurance plans to be canceled. But the new Obamacare website was not working well, and people with canceled plans were having trouble buying new ones. Without insurance, they could be fined.
So the Obama administration granted a “hardship exemption” under the law to anyone with a canceled plan. As liberal commentator Ezra Klein put it at the time, it decided that “Obamacare itself is the hardship.” The Trump administration may decide to grant hardship exemptions even more liberally.
I have written against Obamacare’s “individual mandate” fines many, many times. I urged the Supreme Court to strike down the original version of the mandate. When the court instead modified the mandate, I argued that Congress should replace Obamacare with a health system less reliant on coercing people to buy insurance they do not want.
Yet I don’t think the executive branch should just stop enforcing the fines, for three reasons.
First: The fines are in the law. Whether we like it or not, Congress passed a law that includes these fines and the president signed it. Obama abused the law by stretching the provision for hardship exemptions, as law professor Josh Blackman has explained.