Obamacare's false promise

To say that President Barack Obama is on the record telling Americans they can keep their current health insurance is an understatement. He repeated the assurance so many times during the health-care debate that it was almost a verbal tic.

He was stirring: “Americans must have the freedom to keep whatever doctor and health-care plan they have.” He was adamant: “If you like your health plan, you will be able to keep your health-care plan. Period.” He was clear: “Let me be clear: If you like your doctor or health-care provider, you can keep them. If you like your health-care plan, you can keep that, too.”

He had to keep repeating his promise, since there was so much bad information out there. “No matter what you’ve heard,” he said in a weekly radio address in August 2009, “if you like your doctor or health-care plan, you can keep it.”

Practically no Obama speech was complete without this disclaimer. He must have felt sorely tempted to tack it on to his Cairo speech to the Arab world and his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. It must have been the first words on his lips when he arose in the morning and the last when he retired in the evening. When it came to existing health insurance, he portrayed himself as the principled and tireless defender of the realm.

Rarely has a major domestic program been sold on the basis of a premise so patently untrue. No matter what you’ve heard from the president of the United States, hundreds of thousands of people in states around the country are now receiving notices that their insurance is getting canceled. It raises the question of how the president could be so wrong about a basic element of his own signature initiative.

President Obama could always go with the Huey Long defense. In one of his gubernatorial campaigns in Louisiana, Long promised a state senator a bridge project in exchange for an endorsement. Upon getting elected, he reneged on his pledge. Asked by the jilted state senator what he should tell his disappointed constituents, Long advised: “Tell them I lied.”

Until now, Obama hasn’t been pressed to square what he said with the reality of those cancellation notices. But the dam is breaking. Former adviser David Axelrod has refined the Obama promise to say that “most” people can keep their insurance, which doesn’t have quite the same ring as the president’s sweeping statements of yore. White House spokesman Jay Carney conceded under questioning that some plans are being axed.

It may be true, per Axelrod, that “most” people with insurance in the country are keeping it, but “most” people in the individual market are losing it. Robert Laszewski of the consultancy Health Policy and Strategy Associates estimates that 19 million people are covered in the individual market and 16 million of them have plans that don’t pass muster under the exacting new Obamacare rules.

This is a problem of a different order than the travails of healthcare.gov. The website will presumably get fixed; its failures are a bug, not a feature. Throwing people off old plans, in contrast, is central to Obamacare’s remaking of American health insurance. Carney justified the cancellations as the shedding of “substandard” policies, by which he means policies that are more affordable and less comprehensive than allowed under the law.

Many of the people who found that those policies suited them will now be forced to buy different, more expensive policies. Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, is planning to offer legislation grandfathering those plans so people can really keep them. Johnson’s bill would force Democrats to choose between defending the law and standing by Obama’s frequently repeated promise. They will, of course, choose the law.

The line about how “Americans must have the freedom to keep whatever doctor and health-care plan they have” isn’t operative, and never was. Welcome to Obamacare.

Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com.

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