Dem senator: Congress should pursue alternatives to individual health mandate

A Democratic senator facing a tough reelection fight in 2012 said Congress should pursue alternatives to a requirement for individuals to purchase health insurance.

More than 20 states have challenged the new healthcare reform law’s so-called individual mandate in federal court, arguing that Congress cannot require individuals to purchase health coverage.

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Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), expected to face stiff competition from Republicans in the 2012 election, said she understood why the requirement was included in the reform law, but said lawmakers should find other ways to boost insurance enrollment.

“There’s other ways we can get people into the pool — I hope — other than a mandate, and we need to look at that,” McCaskill said Wednesday morning on MSNBC. 

Missouri voters overwhelmingly rejected the individual mandate during the August primary, with 71 percent of voters approving a referendum opposing the measure. McCaskill said at the time she'd heard the voters loud and clear.

"I certainly noticed the vote on Prop C, the healthcare law, and: message received," she told state reporters the day after the vote.

"I appreciate the fact that voters are sending a message," she said. "I don't think it has any impact on the law itself, but it is a message."

McCaskill, who noted the individual mandate is unpopular with her constituents, said Wednesday it was included in the healthcare overhaul to ensure that insurance companies could not discriminate against individuals with pre-existing conditions.

“Can you imagine if you can get car insurance after you have a wreck?” she said. "Nobody would buy insurance."

McCaskill has reason to be worried — Republicans won her state's other Senate seat in 2010 and she begins her reelection fight in a virtual tie with Republican Sarah Steelman, according to December numbers from the left-leaning Public Policy Polling. Steelman is the only Republican who has announced a candidacy, but other Republicans, including former Sen. Jim Talent (R-Mo.), are said to be considering a challenge to the first-term senator.

With 23 Senate Democrats on the campaign trail in 2012, Republicans believe they can pressure some Democrats facing tough reelections into siding with the GOP on certain issues. Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who will also draw a challenge in 2012, already said he would propose an alternative to the individual mandate.

Voter anger over healthcare reform was one of the factors that helped Republicans take control of the House after the 2010 election. Republicans also picked up six Senate seats, meaning they would need a net gain of four seats in the 2012 election to take control of the upper chamber.

Former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean predicted Wednesday morning that the individual mandate will eventually be scrapped.

“I think that will be gone,” Dean on MSNBC. “People don’t like it, and I don’t think it’s essential to the program at all. It’s great for the insurance companies.”

—Julian Pecquet contributed.

This post was updated at 11:02 a.m.