OLYMPIA — Some Democratic lawmakers in Washington are looking for a way to replace the Obamacare-era individual mandate for health insurance, which ended as part of Congress’ recent tax reform package. Those efforts appear to have hit a roadblock, despite slim Democratic majorities in both chambers.
A bill introduced at the start of the 2018 legislative session would have mandated that individuals maintain a minimum level of health insurance, effectively replacing the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate in all ways but one: the bill had no enforcement mechanism. The ACA used federal income taxes to penalize those without healthcare. Washington has no state income tax, and can’t enforce a mandate in the same way.
This raised concerns among healthcare interest groups who would otherwise support an individual mandate. Meg Jones, representing the Association of Washington Healthcare Plans, said at a public hearing Jan. 9 that the association agreed with the intent of the bill, but was concerned at the lack of enforcement tools.
That bill passed out of the Senate Thursday evening, but heavily amended, containing less than a third of the original bill’s text. Language that would have created a statewide individual mandate was removed, replaced by a declaration that a mandate was necessary and that the legislature would look into how to implement one in the future.
The relatively small section both bills had in common would create a task force to research how the legislature might implement enforcement mechanisms.
The amendment was put forward by the bill’s prime sponsor, Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, who the task force and its study would help lead to a mandate down the road.
Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane, said on the Senate floor that the sponsor had “gutted her own bill.”
“This is a meaningless and symbolic bill,” Baumgartner said. “Ninety-nine times out of 100, whenever we do a study around here it’s simply a way of gutting a bill and sending it down until next year.”
Baumgartner questioned why the bill never contained an enforcement mechanism and called the bill’s task force and study a waste of time. Baumgartner, who opposes a statewide individual mandate, said that if the Democratic majority really wanted to, they could come up with some method of enforcing a mandate in “15 minutes,” and those enforcement methods could be debated on the Senate floor.
Cleveland agreed Friday to an interview with the Columbia Basin Herald but did not respond to repeated phone calls when she had agreed to speak.