Founders began the first national health-care plan

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As Republican presidential aspirants Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney slug it out in South Carolina, it’s worth remembering that they have been in lock step on at least one issue: the individual insurance mandate in the 2010 health care reform bill.

They were both for it before they were against it.

Romney was governor of Massachusetts when he led that state’s 2006 health-care reform effort, which included the controversial individual mandate.

Gingrich, meanwhile, lavishly praised Romney in his personal newsletter back then for his innovative approach to reform.

In fact, in the early part of the past decade, the individual mandate was praised by various Republicans as a worthy way to force personal responsibility upon irresponsible people.

According to T.R. Reid, author of the widely read book “The Healing of America,” an individual mandate exists in “every nation that relies on health insurance” to fund medical care — except the U.S.

But the mandate has become the lightning rod in the health care debate, and nearly two dozen states (including Maine) plan to challenge the law in the U.S. Supreme Court.

The nine justices will be asked to decide whether the mandate is unconstitutional and try to divine what the framers would have thought of the idea.

Interestingly, history has left us a clue.

In 1798, Congress adopted an “An Act for the Relief of Sick and Disabled Seamen.”

The problem at the time was that sailors often returned from voyages with injuries or exotic diseases which were expensive to treat.

The solution was simple. The Seamen Act created the Marine Hospital Service and built a series of hospitals in port cities.

And the law featured what looks for all the world like an individual mandate: a 1 percent tax on each sailor’s wages, to be withheld from his pay. No options, no exceptions.

Ships were not allowed to enter or leave ports unless this tax, the first payroll tax in our nation’s history, was paid.

Later, the tax was extended to commercial vessels on the nation’s rivers and lakes.

John Adams was president and signed this mandate into law. Thomas Jefferson was president of the Senate when it was adopted, while another signer of the Constitution, Jonathan Dayton, was speaker of the House.

All were present in that hot summer of 1787 in Philadelphia when the Constitution was written, and Adams and Jefferson were among its chief architects.

Their reasoning for supporting the new law is as clear today as it was then: If society is compelled by its collective humanity to provide medical care to sick people, those people have an individual responsibility to help pay, if they can, for the cost of that care.

By the way, this historical anecdote was first uncovered by Rick Ungar, a health care consultant who also writes for Forbes magazine. At least one historian has suggested the “Act for the Relief of Sick and Disabled Seamen” shows the founders had no qualms about government-run health care plans.

Of course, the current Supreme Court will be the final arbiter of the mandate issue. In a way, the court will be ruling on whether the founders themselves understood the Constitution they wrote.

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