Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

If mandatory health insurance is struck, mandatory attendance should go, too

Supreme Court arguments over President Obama’s signature healthcare reform law made national headlines last week. The main issue before the Court is the constitutionality of the law’s mandate that Americans purchase health insurance or pay a penalty.

But can Congress use its power to regulate interstate commerce to compel Americans to participate in that commerce?

The Obama administration argues it can, because everyone is in the healthcare market. We don’t know when we will need medical services or what we will need them for, but at some point, we will need medical treatment.

Federal law requires hospitals to treat emergency room patients, regardless of their ability to pay. Even if federal law didn’t require it, though, American hospitals aren’t going to refuse critical treatment because of a patient’s insurance status.

By requiring everyone to have insurance, the law makes individuals pay for their policies upfront, without passing costs onto other patients by receiving care they can’t afford later. The insurance mandate also allows more people to receive treatment and preventive care from family physicians, which will hopefully prevent them from having to go to the emergency room in the first place.

Isn’t the logic behind mandatory class attendance the same?

If we require all students to attend class, then we don’t have to worry about them skipping out and haggling their responsible classmates for notes the night before the test, passing their academic burdens on to others. Furthermore, we ensure they are responsibly following along through each chapter, so they will perform better on their tests and not end up in an academic emergency.

But several justices seemed skeptical of the administration’s argument, and there is reason for skepticism. If the Court strikes the law down, as is quite possible, mandatory class attendance policies should also be eliminated on the same logical grounds, even if the legal similarities are tenuous.

Attorneys for the opposition to the healthcare law argued that there were other ways the government could solve this problem, but if it could require Americans to buy health insurance, there would be no limit to what the government can do under the Commerce Clause.

I think we all agree that professors should regulate our behavior inside the classroom, but should they penalize us for not entering the classroom?

The health insurance mandate has created a series of complexities that most recently caught President Obama in a furor over a requirement that religious institutions cover contraception in their employee health benefits packages. Another problem with the mandate is that as soon as the government gets to require everyone to buy insurance, it gets to decide what counts as insurance.

Similarly, some mandatory attendance policies have grown totally out of control, with clickers being used in some classes, pop quizzes in others, sign-in sheets in some and participation in a few. Some combine multiple elements to create an inescapable web of attendance penalties.

The truth is, if either winding up in need of medical care for a chronic illness without means of financing or having to take a test without being prepared were strong enough incentives to get all Americans to buy health insurance or all students to attend class, then they would all do so. Instead, individuals aren’t being allowed to make that determination for themselves.

Of course, some will act irresponsibly and end up in a bad medical condition without insurance. Of course, some students will irresponsibly skip class and earn a poor grade on a test for which they weren’t prepared.

But what about the individuals without health insurance who eat healthy and exercise responsibly to improve their health status so they don’t have to insure it? What about the students who learn better studying on their own? Should the irresponsibility of some limit the freedom of all?

Of course, trying to get more people insured isn’t a bad goal for the government. There are many different ways to do that, though, and mandating that people buy insurance isn’t the best.

Encouraging class attendance is also a good goal. All class attendance policies aren’t bad. But there are better options than mandates.

One would be automatically giving students who make a B or higher on an exam attendance points for every class period that covered material for that exam. Finals could count only for the period between your final and your last exam. Another would be upgrading our technology to accommodate smartphone clicker apps.

Similarly, the government could encourage people to buy health insurance by holding the uninsured responsible for the costs of the healthcare they receive. If they make it through the year unscathed, they save money. If they end up having to pay for serious medical attention, the consequences could be much worse than missing class.


Tray Smith is the special projects editor of The Crimson White.       

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