Is Obama's Broken Health Insurance Promise a Matter of Fact or Opinion?


White House

The other day Matt Welch argued that the insurance cancellations triggered by Obamacare represent "a gut-check moment for the mostly left-of-center journalists who have made such a show these past few years of dropping false equivalence and calling out political bullshit at the source." So far The New York Times has risen to the challenge pretty well. A few days ago, reporters Jonathan Weisman and Robert Pear matter-of-factly stated that cancellation letters received by people who buy their medical coverage on the individual market "directly contradict Mr. Obama's oft-repeated reassurances that if people like the insurance they have, they will be able to keep it." Meanwhile, in an article published the same day, Reed Abelson perceived a "debate" about "whether President Obama misled Americans when he said that people who like their health plans may keep them." Apparently Abelson no longer considers that proposition controversial. In today's paper, he and Katie Thomas write:

The Affordable Care Act was signed into law by Mr. Obama in 2010. Since then he has assured Americans: "If you like your insurance plan you will keep it. No one will be able to take that away from you. It hasn't happened yet. It won't happen in the future."

But it is happening.

Furthermore, Abelson and Thomas say "insurance companies are canceling millions of individual plans that fail to meet minimum standards," up from the "hundreds of thousands" estimated by Weisman and Pear on Tuesday. In other words, according to the Times, it is indisputable that Obama broke his promise and that millions of Americans are bearing the consequences.

That seems clearly accurate to me, but yesterday Obama implicitly argued that it's not:

If you had one of these substandard plans before the Affordable Care Act became law and you really liked that plan, you're able to keep it. That's what I said when I was running for office. That was part of the promise we made. But ever since the law was passed, if insurers decided to downgrade or cancel these substandard plans, what we said under the law is you've got to replace them with quality, comprehensive coverage—because that, too, was a central premise of the Affordable Care Act from the very beginning. 

Note that "substandard" means "below the standard I have set," which is another way of saying that you may like your health plan but the president does not. Still, Obama is not claiming that his personal distaste for your health insurance choices is enough to void his guarantee. Instead he is retroactively adding a caveat to his promise: If you like your plan, you can keep your plan—provided it is exactly the same as the coverage you had before the law took effect. If any of the terms have changed, all bets are off.

It will be illuminating to see whether the Times and other news outlets dignify this Clintonesque evasion by presenting it as a plausible alternative to the view that Obama has not delivered what he said he would. As Welch observed, "You can subject the policy and politics of Obamacare to truth-scans, or you can carry water for the president. You cannot do both, at least without a laugh track."