Free Riders: Why is Health Care Any Different from Food Stamps?

obamacareI was talking to some friends recently who said that they were disturbed by people “gaming the system,” maneuvering to get benefits that they shouldn’t be entitled to.

Common examples are people who get welfare or food stamps even when they really have enough income so that they shouldn’t qualify. Or take those who keep getting extended unemployment compensation while turning down jobs that they don’t like.

Let’s leave aside the question of how common cases like these might be. Most conservatives will be sure that such abuses are widespread, and most liberals will be convinced that the problem is greatly exaggerated, and that the vast majority of those who receive such benefits are qualified, and deserve them. We’re not going to settle this question here.

My initial response to my friends was to point out that we live in a society where the rich and the big corporations routinely “game the system” to get out of paying their fair share of taxes or to avoid bothersome regulations. They acknowledged that I had a point.

However, I failed to make another point, concerning the Affordable Care Act of 2009 (now known colloquially, for better or worse, as ObamaCare). Republican challenges now before the Supreme Court are based on the argument that the federal government lacks the authority to require citizens to purchase health insurance. The problem, of course, is that if many people hold off getting insured until they get sick, the costs will go up for the rest of us who do have insurance.

This is the classic problem of the “free rider,” the person who takes something without paying for it. In this case, that something is health care. We all pay the costs of very expensive emergency room care for the uninsured: it’s built into our health insurance premiums and hospital bills. The Affordable Care Act intends to fix that problem by requiring everyone to have insurance.

john peelerRepublicans are up in arms about this and have taken their case to the Supreme Court. We’ll know how they rule later this year. But what I would like to know is why getting extra food stamps amounts to fraud if not outright theft, while refusing to buy health insurance when you can afford it is a constitutional right. A free rider is a free rider. Does the Constitution really protect the right to be a free rider? That would be a right that just isn’t right.

John Peeler

Published by the LA Progressive on March 18, 2012
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About John Peeler

John Peeler is a retired professor of political science at Bucknell University, specializing in Latin American and international affairs. His op-ed essays have appeared in The Christian Science Monitor and USA Today, as well as many in local papers in central Pennsylvania where he lives. He has had letters published in both the New York Times and the Washington Post.