Under Baucus Bill, Mandate Penalty Could Lead to Prison, Congressional Analysts Say

Under the health care bill being considered in the Senate Finance Committee, Americans who fail to pay a penalty for not buying insurance could be charged up to $25,000 by the Internal Revenue Service or face up to a year in jail, according to congressional analysts. 

That's just one of the concerns Republicans say the Democratic-run Congress is ignoring in the rush to pass legislation to overhaul the nation's health care system.

"The American people expect us to get this right and to do it in an open, honest and bipartisan debate. That's what they deserve," said Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., in his party's radio and Internet address Saturday. "But that's not what they're getting from the Democrats on Capitol Hill."

The Senate Finance Committee is the last of five committees to take up health care legislation, which tops President Obama's domestic agenda.

The committee chairman, Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., negotiated with top Republicans for weeks before talks broke down. Baucus' bill leaves out a primary demand of many Democrats -- a government insurance option -- and it has a lower price tag than other Democratic proposals.

But the legislation includes an individual mandate penalty that could go as high as $1,900. Thomas Barthold, chief of staff of the Joint Committee on Taxation, told senators that the IRS could take legal action against those who fail to pay the mandate penalty. 

In a handwritten note to Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., Barthold said violators could be charged with a misdemeanor and could face up to a year in jail or a $25,000 penalty.

Isakson and other Republicans say the Baucus bill is too costly and would require too much government intrusion into the health care system. Only one Republican, Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, appears to be considering supporting it.

At its core, the bill is designed to expand health insurance coverage to millions of people who lack it, employing a new system of federal subsidies for lower-income individuals and families and establishing an insurance exchange in which coverage would have federally guaranteed benefits.

Insurance companies would be prohibited from refusing to sell insurance based on a person's health history, and limits would be imposed on higher premiums based on age.