A gun-nut win on health reform.

How to fix health policy.
Dec. 20 2009 5:46 PM

A Gun-Nut Win On Health Reform

A fringe group muzzles health insurers on gun ownership.

Score one for the Gun Owners of America, a lobby group positioned well to the right of the National Rifle Association. Last month I described how this fringe group zeroed in on a health reform provision encouraging insurers to reward healthy habits and, by implication, to punish unhealthy ones like smoking and obesity. GOA got it into its head that if health reform were passed, the health and human services secretary would compel insurers to punish gun ownership as an unhealthy lifestyle. Although an adverse health impact (or threat of same) on man or beast is pretty much the whole point of owning a gun, nothing in the bill remotely suggested Congress wanted to wade into these politically treacherous shoals.

Nonetheless, to pacify GOA, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (who represents the gun-loving state of Nevada) has inserted into his "manager's amendment" a section titled "Protecting 2nd Amendment Gun Rights." It states that no wellness program implemented under health reform may require disclosure or collection of any information relating to gun ownership. Since collecting information about gun ownership was the last thing health reformers wanted to do, this concession represents no particular sacrifice on the government's part.

But gun owners also won another provision forbidding private insurers participating in the bill's exchanges from charging higher premiums, or denying coverage, or denying wellness discounts on the basis of gun ownership. Unlike the previous section, this one doesn't place a restriction on what government may do. It places a restriction on what the private sector may choose to do on its own. It inhibits that most holy of right-wing sacred cows: free enteprise.

There's no point pretending this has anything to do with conservative principle. Seven years ago GOA got its knickers in a twist when State Farm and Prudential canceled a couple of insurance policies because of gun ownership. One policyholder alarmed Prudential because he owned a military-style Mossberg 500pump-action rifle. The other alarmed State Farm because he had a shooting range on his property. Both of these policies were for property insurance, not health insurance. But apparently GOA is worried that private health insurers may, even in the absence of government pressure, take notice of studies like this one and this one and this one that show gun owners are (duh) more likely to injure or kill themselves or others, and adjust their risk tables accordingly. Now they can't, thanks to GOA's newfound enthusiasm for the heavy hand of government regulation.

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Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.

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