The IRS commissioner explains how he'll make you buy health insurance.

How to fix health policy.
April 7 2010 6:14 PM

Maybe the Individual Mandate Is Enforceable

The IRS commissioner explains how he'll make you buy health insurance.

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(Continued from Page 1)

Maybe I worry too much. Here is what Jost had to say about Shulman's remarks after I e-mailed them to him:

First, I would suspect that this is something the IRS has not yet totally thought through. They have to immediately get the tax credits to small businesses program up and running, and with four million businesses as potential beneficiaries, they are probably more focused on that then on a program that is four years away.

Second, the statute prohibits criminal sanctions and liens and levies on property to collect the penalty. It is essentially a tax, however, so the IRS is responsible for collecting it. I am not a tax expert, but I would see no reason why they could not offset it against a refund. They are not going to pay you money if you owe them money. They will also send out letters asking for the payment, as is their right.

Since only people who earn income above the filing limit and for whom health insurance premiums are less than 8% of income are covered by the penalty, I would expect that most of the people who might get hit by the penalty will be independent contractors and self-employed individuals—farmers, ranchers, lawyers, accountants, movie script writers, consultants, etc. Most of these people have complicated taxes and probably will 1.) want health insurance, and 2.) prefer to keep their heads down with the IRS. If you are filing a hundred-page tax return, the last thing you want to do is to throw up a red flag in the face of the IRS.

This is, in fact, going to be a non-problem, and certainly is not a problem yet. A few tea party types will want to pick a fight with the IRS, and the IRS will ignore them, or catch them on something totally unrelated.

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Apparently the "invitations to civil disobedience" that Jost wrote about in February aren't troubling him so much in April. Certainly the political climate has changed. As Evan McMorris-Santoro has observed on Talking Points Memo, the passage of the health care reform law didn't stir anything like the kind of visible public anger that Republicans predicted (and that surfaced in town hall meetings last summer). The much-threatened repeal movement is sputtering to a halt before it even gets started. Maybe it's the vernal equinox. In deference to health reform's budding trend toward optimism, I hereby downgrade the enforceability issue from an impending crisis to an interesting question whose answer we'll know soon enough.

E-mail Timothy Noah at chatterbox@slate.com.

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

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