Jail Time for Insurance Evaders? Yes, Said Fox News

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A little more than a week ago, Tom Coburn did something fairly courageous by political standards. At a town hall meeting in Oklahoma, the conservative Republican senator referred to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as a “nice lady” and criticized Fox News. (He was briefly booed for the Pelosi comment.) After an audience member mentioned “the possibility of imprisonment” for those who don’t buy health insurance, Coburn told her, “The intention is not to put anybody in jail. That makes for good TV news on FOX but that isn’t the intention.”

(This is true, the reform law expressly prohibits the government from jailing anyone who fails to either obtain health insurance or pay a tax penalty.)

Then, last night Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly raked Coburn over the coals for his comment about the network. O’Reilly said no one had ever appeared on Fox News and told viewers they would go to jail if they didn’t buy health insurance. “We researched on Fox News if anybody had ever said you’re going to jail if you don’t buy health insurance. Nobody’s ever said it.”

Like Coburn, I was pretty sure I’d heard exactly this assertion numerous times on Fox News, so I did a quick search of their transcripts. Here’s what I found (emphasis mine):


CAVUTO: So, how much will Senator Harry Reid’s health care bill ultimately cost? Come Monday, we should find out, but, the longer the wait, the more the leaks. And here’s the latest, a $54 billion addition, a report today saying that the tax threshold on those so-called Cadillac plans is now being raised to $23,000 for couples from $21,000.

That means fewer union members then would potentially get hit. Could that be a payoff for union support and a big Democratic base?

Republican Congressman Dave Reichert of Washington says yes. Congressman, if that is the case, will that $2,000 difference make the difference?

REP. DAVE REICHERT (R), WASHINGTON: Well, you know, what I`m worried about is that we continue on with this — this whole idea that we’re going to pay for this bill by taxing people. So, now we’re going to tax their health insurance plans. On the House side, we have already passed a bill that taxes families, taxes small businesses, taxes medical devices for seniors and our special-needs community. And then we are also going to fine people and send them to jail. So, the bill just keeps getting worse and worse and worse. Every day that goes by…

CAVUTO: I understand, Congressman.

GLENN BECK, November 12, 2009

BECK: They justify the $1 dollar health care plan by saving, you know, money through some magical fairy money. I don’t know how they’re going to do it. They don’t play by the rules the rest of us have to play by, because they make them up as they go! But if you don’t play by their new rules on health care — oh, here’s a new little twist. Have you heard this? You’re going to be looking at a fun little stint in jail.

HANNITY, November 10, 2009

HANNITY: All right, Dick Morris was on the program last night. Penalties for people who don’t get government-mandated health insurance. Jail time, possibility? Here’s President Obama addressing this in an interview.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If you have the ability to buy insurance, it’s affordable, and you choose not to do so, forcing you and me and everybody else to subsidize you, you know, there’s a thousand- dollar hidden tax that families all across America are burdened by because of the fact that people don’t have health insurance. You know, there is nothing wrong with a penalty. Penalties are appropriate for people who try to free ride the system and force others to pay for their health insurance.

HANNITY: Jail? Is that…

MUELLER: We are losing freedom. The Berlin Wall anniversary is just the other day. And these are the kind of policies that used to be imposed on people behind that wall. One problem we’re going to have, though, Sean, they’re going to have, though, Sean, they’re going to have to do something about prisons. They’re going to put all these people in jail. It cost $50,000 a year to take care of a prisoner. So they’re going to have to do prison reform.

HANNITY: That’s going to be true.

MUELLER: Democrats don’t like to do prisons.

HANNITY: Put people in jail if they don’t get their government mandated health? We’re going to tax business. We’re going to tax individuals. There’s going to be fines. There’s going to be penalties. There’s a millionaire’s tax. We’re paying for it through the wall. This is what you want?

GLENN BECK, November 10, 2009

JUDGE NAPOLITANO (filling in for Beck): Last Saturday, at 11:00 in the evening, the House of Representatives voted by a five-vote margin to have the federal government manage the health care of everyone in America at a cost of over $1 trillion over the next 10 years. For the first time in American history, if this bill becomes law, the Feds will force you to buy insurance you might not want or may not need or cannot afford. 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.

HANNITY, November 9, 2009

HANNITY: All right. You’ve got — the senators are saying no way. OK? Lieberman is saying he’ll filibuster. You’ve got the blue — you’ve got in the Senate they’re saying no way they’re going to get a government option. Then you’ve got these two internal battles that I just described. How do you see this?

DICK MORRIS: Well, the fight over the public option is the focus at the moment of the Senate debate and the abortion provision as well. I don’t personally much care about either one. I think that the bill, even with the abortion amendment and even without the public option, is plenty injurious itself. That would leave the Medicare cuts, the huge payments by the uninsured. One of the provisions in the Pelosi bill is you actually can go to jail for not having health insurance. It says that 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. Can you imagine your prison yard, what are you in for? Murder. I’m in for rape. I didn’t have health insurance.

CAVUTO, November 20, 2009

CHARLES PAYNE (hosting): Stocks slipping a bit today. That makes it three straight days in the red. But that may have nothing to do with one firm’s hunch, if it is right. Timothy Geithner’s job could be hanging in the balance. The treasury secretary facing major heat on Capitol Hill from Republicans and some Democratic congressman, some even calling for his resignation, both sides, by the way. Is this advice alarmist or practical? Let’s ask “FOX Business” all- stars, Matt McCall, Tracy Byrnes, Mark Tatge and Gary B. Smith.

Gary B., practical or alarmist?

GARY B. SMITH, EXEMPLAR CAPITAL: I think it is very practical. Look, Charles, at some of the things we’ve seen. You don’t pay your health insurance taxes, you could go to prison. You are chairman of G.M., we don’t like you, you’re fired! You know, Wall Street, we gave you money, no Christmas party for you! You know what that sounds like to me? That sounds like Soviet Russia back in the ’60s and ’70s. We know how well their economy turned out.

All of these statements were made after the Senate Finance Committee passed its version of the health reform legislation, which specifically prohibited imprisoning people for refusing to pay the tax penalty levied on those without insurance. To be fair, the House bill did not specifically prohibit this, but it also did not include this threat. Critics who said failure to obtain insurance would result in jail time were quoting a piece of the internal revenue code, not any version of health reform legislation. Further explanation here, here, and here.