Why Those Health Insurance Mandates Are A Good Thing

Seth Millstein on Tuesday, Nov. 2nd

Thirteen states are suing the federal government in hopes of repealing the health care reform law. Meanwhile, some firefighters in Tennessee showed up to Gene and Paulette Cranick’s burning house and watched it crumble to pieces without lifting a finger. What do these two things have to do with each other?

First, health care reform. The lawsuit was filed against one particular aspect of the Affordable Care Act: the individual mandate, which requires everybody above a certain income to purchase health insurance. Many are outraged over this; should the government really be allowed to force people to buy a product like health insurance? Yes, they should, and the Cranick’s burning house illustrates why.
In most counties, the fire department is funded through taxes. Everyone pays a tax, and in return, they’re guaranteed a fire truck if their house goes up in flames. Good deal, right? But in Obion County, Tennessee, residents can “opt out” of this tax. At the beginning of every year, they’re given the option to purchase what amounts to “fire department insurance” for $75. If they pay the money, firefighters will be there to extinguish any blazes that arise. If they decide not to…well, just ask the Cranicks.
What’s wrong with this system? Well, it results in ludicrous situations like these, where firefighters watch idly as houses burn down. Some people thought it was inexcusable for the firefighters not to put out the blaze, especially considering that the Cranicks offered to pay them the $75 on the spot.
Those people are wrong. If the city gave residents the option of only paying $75 once their houses actually caught fire, the fire department would go broke. Nobody would pay until their houses were engulfed in flames; even if 100 houses caught fire every year, it wouldn’t provide nearly enough income to maintain the trucks, pay the firefighters, etc.
The obvious response to this is that the town shouldn’t have operated its fire department in such a manner. No, they shouldn’t have, and that’s exactly the point. They should have required its residents to pay the $75, so nobody would have to undergo the surreal experience of watching a firefighter watch a house burn.
This brings us back to health care reform. By not requiring everyone to purchase health insurance before they get sick, the government is sort of acting like the fire department in Obion County. If I forgo buying health insurance, and then accidentally cut my arm off with a chainsaw, what’s the paramedic to do? She can either watch as I bleed to death (which is like the firefighters watching the Cranick’s house burn down) or she can take my money, cauterize my wound, throw my severed arm into an icebox, and give me cookies to feel better.
The first option is unthinkably soulless and should never happen; the second is clearly the humane choice. But if nobody has to purchase insurance until their limbs are severed, the insurance companies (and in turn, hospitals) won’t be able to afford the cost of fixing severed limbs. And nobody wants that.
The concept of insurance is predicated on the idea that everybody puts a small, affordable bit of money into a pot, which they can draw from if they ever need to buy something expensive that they couldn’t otherwise afford (like firefighters, or limb cauterizations). For certain things, like Jennifer Lopez’s butt, (it’s insured), we’re fine with insurance being optional. But with other things, like houses and limbs, we can’t afford to take the risk. That’s why we need an individual mandate. Otherwise, if I screw up while practicing my circus act, I’ll be not only limbless, but bloodless and cookieless as well.

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