During the campaign, Barack Obama promised his cheering crowds that, when he rolled up his sleeves to work on health care, he would have “insurance company representatives and drug company representatives at the table. They just won’t be able to buy every chair.” Now is the time to look at just what kind of seats special interest groups are having at Obama’s table and what they’re doing to bring the public around to their ways of thinking. This is the fifteenth of an occasional series of posts that will analyze their activities and how the media are covering them. The entire series is archived here.

It’s obvious why President Obama, his surrogates, and advocacy groups cheering for reform have kept mum about the sine qua non of their plan—the requirement that everyone (with a few exceptions) will have to carry health insurance. The so-called individual mandate will mean that some individuals and families will have to spend a significant portion of their income on health coverage, whether they want to or not. Those with incomes low enough will get some government subsidies to help out with the premiums, but if their income is over the threshold, people are on their own.

In his address to Congress, the president finally mentioned the mandate. So it wouldn’t surprise us to see all kinds of groups weighing in on the mandate and scrambling for a seat at the president’s ever-growing table of special interest lobbyists. One of the first out of the box in opposition is Gun Owners of America (GOA), a group of some 300,000 gun owners who don’t always see eye-to-eye with their larger rival, the National Rifle Association. As soon as the Baucus draft plan circulated last week, the GOA swung into action to mobilize their members, urging them to send “mounds of gun owners’ mail” to Congress.

The group has two big concerns: first, that gun-related medical information would find its way into a federal database, “pursuant to a $20 billion program Obama insisted be included in the $787 billion stimulus bill” and be available to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. Eddie Isler, a manager at the organization, said they were worried that alphabet soup agencies would have access to that information. “Your medical records could end up where you purchase firearms,” Isler explained. “Maybe someone has seen a psychiatrist. That information could pop up when they do a background check. That could come back to bite.” Plus, the gun owners aren’t keen on the individual mandate, which penalizes people who don’t cough up for health insurance.

The GOA told its members: “In a legislative draft released this week, Baucus would fine you up to $3800 for not buying precisely the insurance policy which Barack Obama orders you to buy.” The call to arms, so to speak, noted that Baucus isn’t going to tell members what will be required “under ObamaCare” and how much it will cost. He will tell you that only after the bill is passed, the GOA claimed. Specifically, its message said:


We do know that, under the Baucus draft, a lower middle income family could be forced to pay up to 13 % of its income to buy an ObamaCare policy. And presumably, a middle income family would be required to spend much, much more.

The GOA continued: “Obama opposed forcing Americans to purchase government-approved insurance during the campaign, but guess what? He lied.”

On Friday, Robert Laszewski at Health Care Policy and Marketplace Review began to quantify what the mandate could mean in dollars and cents. The Baucus draft says that subsidies would be available for a family of four with an income of $66,150, 300 percent of the federal poverty level. That family would be required to pay up to 13 percent of their income toward the cost of the policy, or $8600 a year. If that family had no other insurance but decided they could not swing the premium, they would pay a fine of $3800. Fines would be lower for people with less income.

Laszewski wrote that this family would be expected to spend $8600 for a health insurance plan that would likely have a $2,000 deductible. If they didn’t buy it, they would be subject to the $3800 fine:

Do you know many families making $66,000 a year that have an extra $8,600 in their checking account—much less for a health policy with big deductibles and out-of pocket costs? Explain this one to Harry and Louise.

To us, this sounds like the troubles people in Massachusetts are having with the state’s mandated insurance.

Indeed, the press has some explaining to do about the individual mandate, and how all these numbers square with what the president meant the other night by security and stability? And while they’re at it, we think that all the other lobbyists coming out of the woodwork on this one would make for some dandy stories.

If you'd like to get email from CJR writers and editors, add your email address to our newsletter roll and we'll be in touch.

Trudy Lieberman is a fellow at the Center for Advancing Health and a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR’s healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.