During the public debate over healthcare in 2009 and 2010, no matter how tightly you may have shut your door, there was one piece of information it was impossible to avoid: the president’s promise that if you liked your doctor and your healthcare plan you would be able to keep it. So it was a surprise to many people to get a letter like the one Independence Blue Cross sent its customers weeks ago. It said that as a result of the Affordable Care Act, “your current plan will be discontinued effective January 1, 2014, and you will need to select a new plan by the end of December to avoid any interruption in coverage.”
That wasn’t what the president promised. But wait, the president can explain. It’s not what we think. People won’t have the same insurance — they will have better insurance, administration officials assure. That’s not the way some of the people receiving these letters see it. The president’s original promise was so ironclad and repeated so often that any explanation now sounds like dissembling.
When healthcare.gov launched with the fanfare and success of a North Korean missile, the president insisted that Obamacare was more than a website. The website might be a mess, but the underlying product was sound. Now, it’s Republicans who are using this exact phrase. Like the president, GOP leaders want people to focus on the larger law. You can fix a website, they say, but you can’t improve the law.
What started as a website debacle is growing into a relitigation of the underlying operation. The Affordable Care Act passed with cracks and inconsistencies that are now re-emerging in the context of the website’s bad launch. In some cases that simply gives Republicans new lines of attack. In others, like this argument over keeping your old health care, the failure of the site is weakening the administration’s ability to engage in those old debates.
The matter at issue here only affects the 5 percent of the population that buys health care in the individual market, compared to the 80 percent who get health care through their companies. The president’s press secretary, Jay Carney pointed this out several times in his daily briefing Tuesday to put the controversy in perspective. “You would think in some of the coverage over the last several days we were talking about 75 percent,” he said. Fair enough, but the president’s claim about keeping coverage was always about more than a sliver of people signing up for Obamacare, which is why it has the ability to resonate beyond the audience directly affected by it.
The president’s original promise was so ironclad and repeated so often that any explanation now sounds like dissembling.
Let’s go back in time. During the debate over the law, the president had a difficult balancing act. He had to argue that the status quo in health care was a disaster while at the same time not threatening the status quo for those people who were happy with their health care or who feared it would get worse under his changes. A CBS poll at the time showed that people were quite afraid that whatever the president did, it would hurt their plans. Sixty-nine percent worried that the ACA would affect the quality of their care. Almost three-quarters thought it would limit their access. There was a lot of pressure on the president to send the message that nothing would change.