Right-wing websites including the Fox Nation have highlighted a question asked of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at a November 9 press conference in Seattle by a local reporter who said, "Do you think it's fair to send people to jail for not buying health insurance?" In fact, the penalty under the House health care reform bill for failure to purchase insurance is a tax, not jail time, and willful failure to pay federal income taxes can result in civil or criminal penalties.
Right-wing blogs trumpet Seattle reporter's question: "[I]f you don't buy health insurance, you go to jail?"
Seattle reporter: "Do you think it's fair to send people to jail for not buying health insurance?" From the November 9 press conference:
SHOMARI STONE, KOMO 4 NEWS: Madame Speaker, I'm Shomari Stone from KOMO 4 news. I have a question for you that hasn't been pointed out but a lot of Americans feel this way. Do you think it's fair to send people to jail for not buying health insurance?
PELOSI: Well the point is -- is that we want make sure that everyone has access to health care. For a long time now people who haven't had health care or provided it have placed the burden on others. Everybody is paying the price for uncompensated care-I don't need to tell you that-in a hospital. And so this is -- is to say that we all have to do our part and that is the point of the bill.
STONE: But Madame Speaker, I'm just trying to understand, if you don't buy health insurance, you go to jail? You didn't answer my question.
PELOSI: Well, the point, there is -- I think the legislation is very fair in this respect. It gives people an opportunity to have health care, access to quality health care. If they can't afford it, it provides subsidies for them to do so. But do you think it's fair if somebody says, I'm just not going to have any, if I get sick, then I'll just go to the emergency room and send the bill to you. That's my view on the subject.
Real Clear Politics: "Pelosi On Jail Time For No Health Care: 'The Legislation Is Very Fair In This Respect.' " On November 11, Real Clear Politics posted a video clip from the press conference with the headline: "Pelosi On Jail Time For No Health Care: 'The Legislation Is Very Fair In This Respect.' "
Gateway Pundit: "Pelosi On Jailtime For Those Who Refuse to Buy Obamacare: 'The Legislation Is Very Fair In This Respect.' " On November 11, Gateway Pundit blogger Jim Hoft posted the video and stated that "Speaker Pelosi was confronted by a local reporter on the legality of jailing Obamacare evaders during a press conference in Seattle." The headline of the post asserted that Pelosi said the legislation is "Very Fair" on "Jailtime For Those Who Refuse to Buy Obamacare."
Fox Nation: "Pelosi: It's 'Fair' to Jail People Without Health Insurance." On November 11 and November 12, Fox Nation posted the video clip with the headline: "Pelosi: It's 'Fair' to Jail People Without Health Insurance":
But the reporter's question is based on false talking point
Penalty for failure to purchase insurance is a tax, not jail time. Section 501 of the House health care reform bill provides that an individual must be "covered by acceptable coverage at all times." "Acceptable coverage" includes "qualified health benefits plan coverage," "grandfathered health insurance coverage," "Medicare," "Medicaid," coverage provided to members of the armed forces and their dependents, "coverage under the veteran's health care program," people who receive health care "through the Indian Health Service," or other coverage deemed acceptable by the Secretary of Health and Human Services. If a person does not have acceptable health care coverage, Section 501 imposes a tax on that person "not to exceed the applicable national average premium":
(a) TAX IMPOSED.-In the case of any individual who does not meet the requirements of subsection (d) at any time during the taxable year, there is hereby imposed a tax equal to 2.5 percent of the excess of-
(1) the taxpayer's modified adjusted gross income for the taxable year, over
(2) the amount of gross income specified in section 6012(a)(1) with respect to the taxpayer.
(1) TAX LIMITED TO AVERAGE PREMIUM.-
(A) IN GENERAL.-The tax imposed under subsection (a) with respect to any taxpayer for any taxable year shall not exceed the applicable national average premium for such taxable year.
Bill does not impose tax on those below the threshold for filing a federal income tax return. The Joint Committee on Taxation states: "The additional tax does not apply ... if the person's income is below the threshold for filing a Federal income tax return." Indeed, Section 501 of the bill imposes taxes on "the excess of ... the taxpayer's modified adjusted gross income for the taxable year over ... the amount of gross income specified in section 6012(a)(1)" of the Internal Revenue Code. Section 6012(a)(1) of the Internal Revenue Code provides that "a return is not required of an individual [who] ... has gross income of less than the sum of the exemption amount plus the basic standard deduction applicable to such an individual."
"Hardship cases" are exempted from the tax. From Section 501(f):
(f) REGULATIONS.-The Secretary shall prescribe such regulations or other guidance as may be necessary or appropriate to carry out the purposes of this section, including regulations or other guidance (developed in coordination with the Health Choices Commissioner) which provide-
(2) a waiver of the application of subsection (a) in cases of hardship, including a process for applying for such a waiver.
Willful failure to pay income taxes can result in civil or criminal penalties. Gateway Pundit quoted from a press release by Rep. Dave Camp (R-MI) that in turn relies on a letter from the Joint Committee on Taxation. That section of the letter dealing with "civil and criminal penalties for noncompliance" specifies that Camp asked the committee to "discuss the situation in which the taxpayer has chosen not to comply with individual mandate and not to pay the additional tax." Thus, the letter is not discussing the penalties for failure to buy insurance, but the penalties for both failing to buy insurance and failing to pay the tax. The committee's letter explains that the tax code provides penalties to prevent tax evasion of any sort: "The Code provides for both civil and criminal penalties to ensure complete and accurate reporting of tax liability and to discourage fraudulent attempts to defeat or evade tax." [Joint Committee on Taxation letter, 11/5/09]
Fewer than 100 people convicted for "willful failure to file or pay taxes" in fiscal year 2008. From the Joint Committee on Taxation letter: "Of the 666 convictions reported above for fiscal year 2008, fewer than 100 were convictions for willful failure to file or pay taxes under section 7203." [Joint Committee on Taxation letter, 11/5/09]
Most delinquent taxes and penalties "collected through the civil process." The Joint Committee on Taxation letter states:
The majority of delinquent taxes and penalties are collected through the civil process. In determining whether a penalty applies along with an adjustment to a tax return, the examining agent is constrained not only by the applicable statutory provision, but also by the written policy of the IRS not to treat penalties as bargaining points but instead to develop the facts sufficiently to support the decision to assert or not to assert a penalty. [Joint Committee on Taxation letter, 11/5/09]
Conservative media repeatedly fearmonger about possibility of jail time
Drudge: "PELOSI: Buy a $15,000 Policy or Go to Jail; Failure to Comply, 5 Years in Prison." The headline was posted on the Drudge Report on November 7:
Dick Morris: "[Y]ou can actually go to jail for not having health insurance." During the November 9 broadcast of Fox News' Hannity, Dick Morris stated, "One of the provisions in the Pelosi bill is you actually can go to jail for not having health insurance. It says if you don't have health insurance, you have to pay a fine of 2.5 percent of your income to the government. And if you don't, you face $250,000 or five years in prison."
Hannity cites Morris' false claim that jail is a penalty for failure to buy insurance under heatlh bill. During the November 10 edition of his Fox News program, Sean Hannity stated, "Dick Morris was on the program last night. Penalties for people who don't get government-mandated health insurance, uh, jail time, a possibility?"
Fox & Friends graphic: "Comply or go to jail." Fox & Friends aired the following graphic on November 10:
Beck fill-in Napolitano says government could "even put you in jail" if you fail to purchase insurance under health care bill. During the November 10 edition of Fox News' Glenn Beck, guest host and former New Jersey Superior Court judge Andrew Napolitano stated, "If you don't purchase what the government tells you to buy, if you don't do so when they tell you to do it, if you don't buy just what they say is right for you, the government may fine you, prosecute you, and even put you in jail. Freedom of choice and control over your own body will be lost."