Error-prone health reform still includes a useful check on freeloaders

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Barack Obama

President Obama puts his hand to his heart during the Pledge of Allegiance at the 102nd Abraham Lincoln Association banquet in Springfield, Ill., in 2009. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

The only thing Barack Obama is worse at than building a website is explaining why the website really was needed in the first place.

HealthCare.gov is in fact a great concept, but it’s hard to cling to that fact amid the understandable backlash over the way the administration screwed up the rollout.

The White House says the website is working better, and it probably is. This is good.

Meanwhile, a Gallup Poll found that 28 percent of uninsured people say they’d rather pay a fine than sign up for insurance through the Affordable Care Act.

Some commentators spun that as evidence that people were “rejecting” Obamacare or that it wasn’t working.

That spin reflects a profound, but common, misunderstanding about the law. This in turn stems from Obama’s mysterious inability to explain, sell or even admit to what his signature accomplishment really tries to do.

One of the problems of the U.S. health care system that the ACA tries to address is a freeloader problem, or as economists call it more politely, a free rider issue.

Obama has not been very candid or clear about this aspect of the law. I often wonder how the PR wars over this law might have gone if it had been the signature initiative of someone with Chris Christie’s bluntness, rather than Obama’s vagueness. Christie would have reveled in calling a moocher a moocher.

So who are the freeloaders? Well, often people who would never, ever think of themselves as mooching off the rest of us. They are the people, mostly younger, mostly healthy, who just can’t be bothered to buy health insurance. But they certainly expect the health system to be there for them if they, say, break an ankle playing rugby.

In other words, year after year, they let the rest of us pay, through higher premiums, to maintain the health system so it’ll be rarin’ to go when they need it. The moochers object: Why should I pay for something I don’t use most years?

That’s not how insurance works. The whole idea is you pay while times are good so a pool of money will be there for you when disaster strikes.

I don’t plan on dying this year, but I pay my life insurance premiums. In 40-plus years of driving, I’ve been in maybe six accidents, only two my fault, but I’ve paid 40 years worth of mandatory auto insurance bills. Why? Because that’s the only way the system works.

Why this basic economic principle seems to elude so many Americans when it comes to health insurance is a wonderment. But grasp this: If 28 percent of Americans choose to pay the “fine” instead of getting insurance, that signifies two things, neither of which is a slam on the law.

First, the free ride is finally over. Two, whether out of confusion or pique, some Americans are making a dumb decision.

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