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Senate Finance Committee bill's soft spot: health care insurance mandate

Americans must be aware of how mandates might impinge on their choices – and how vulnerable Obama's plan might be to court challenge.

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Congress crossed a big threshold Tuesday with a vote by the Senate Finance Committee in favor of a healthcare bill. But the vote itself, which garnered only one Republican in support, only underscores the most challenging issue in the still-unsettled debate over government's role in private health decisions.

To win the support of centrist Olympia Snowe, a committee member and a GOP senator from Maine, Democrats had to lower the size of a proposed penalty on individuals who do not buy healthcare insurance. She objected to imposing a large burden on Americans who want to opt out of mandated coverage.

According to the Congressional Research Service – the official nonpartisan think tank that lawmakers rely on – requiring individuals with middle-class incomes or higher to buy insurance will be a contentious issue for years to come.

Without a mandate, however, President Obama's healthcare plan falls apart. Its funding relies largely on expanding the risk pool by forcing the young and healthy to buy insurance. With income from those involuntary premiums, the insurance industry would then be able to pay for coverage of the poor and sick. Those people who refuse to buy insurance would be penalized, or in essence, taxed.

Mr. Obama was once against such a mandate (although he favored it for children). He said during the 2008 campaign that government should simply make healthcare more affordable. Now he wants a mandate – although he calls it "shared responsibility."

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