A mere four days after news broke that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) had improperly targeted conservative political groups for scrutiny, GOP Sen. Dean Heller (NV) is threatening to introduce legislation that would “deny the IRS funds to hire new agents to implement Obamacare.” The bill would effectively make it impossible for the agency to provide millions of Americans with federal subsidies to buy the very health coverage they are required to have under the law.
Heller argues that this extreme measure may be necessary in light of the unfolding IRS scandal, echoing a growing trope among conservative politicians and right-wing commentators. Since last Friday, big-name conservatives including House Oversight Committee Chair Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), former presidential contender Newt Gingrich, former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, and various right-wing media outlets have questioned whether or not the IRS can be trusted to implement Obamacare. The implication is that if the IRS singles out conservative political groups, what’s to stop them from snooping through Americans’ private health care information or imposing fines on companies they don’t like?
This is a reduction to the absurd. The IRS has been collecting health care taxes and compliance information from employers for decades. In fact, it has to, seeing as most Americans receive their insurance through their employer and the employer health insurance tax credit is the single largest tax credit in the federal budget. That system seems to have worked without gross invasions of medical privacy since the the 1950s, and there’s no reason to assume anything will change in 2014.
Furthermore, officials with the Department of Health and Human Services have actually spoken out about the importance of protecting Americans’ medical data, and the Obama Administration has taken action to ensure it. The Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act widens existing privacy and data-security protections on patients’ protected health information as more of their health records are digitized. The 2009 stimulus bill also included updates to HIPAA rules that limit “the use of patient-identifiable medical data for marketing.”
The IRS requires information from individuals and businesses that will help them determine whether Americans have insurance, and how much help they need from the government to be able to buy it. Some critics have latched onto the fact that the IRS will have access to more household income data than before when making those determinations, and that it can share this information with the statewide Obamacare marketplaces and government health agencies. But it would be impossible to implement the law without at least some data-sharing — and without it, many Americans could not receive the benefits they are due. Legislative threats such as Heller’s might make for good politics — but in reality, all it would do is prevent the 26 million Americans expected to gain insurance through the Obamacare marketplaces from receiving the tax credits that would allow them to afford it.