Emblem or footnote? The spate of health insurance policy cancellations is contrary to President Obama’s explicit promises. But it remains to be seen whether it will matter.

October 31, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
Oct. 31, 2013

It turns out that, for hundreds of thousands of Americans, despite what the president pledged, they can’t keep their health plans.

That’s the stark truth about Obamacare — a.k.a. the Affordable Care Act — that has come into sharp focus over the past few days.

President Barack Obama has a verbal habit of insisting on clarity in many of his speeches and off-the-cuff remarks. He could hardly have been clearer when he said, multiple times, that Americans who liked their health insurance would be able to keep it under his health-care reform plan.

Only that isn’t true. CBS reports that 2 million Americans have had their policies canceled by insurance companies because they aren’t compatible with various provisions of Obamacare. Understandably, lots of people are unhappy about this, and Republican and conservative critics have jumped all over this broken promise.

When Valerie Jarrett, a White House senior adviser, attempted to claim on Twitter that Obamacare wasn’t prompting the cancellations that insurance companies attributed to the law, critics blasted her. “[Y]ou & this entire administration are pathetic liars,” one wrote. “Where’s a straightjacket [sic] when we need one?” asked another. “Blatant lying. Going for Goebbels school of PR?” queried a third tweeter.

It’s baffling as to why Obama and his administration have persisted in spinning Americans’ ability to keep their extant plans. Is this another case where people who should have known better were ill-informed? Or were Obama and Jarrett flat-out lying, as conservatives have charged? Frankly, I’m inclined to believe the latter scenario — although I can’t for the life of me understand why they’ve stuck to the party line at such a late date, when the party line has been exposed as so obviously wrong.

People are right to be angry about this. Not only have millions of people been forced to seek health insurance, this is occurring at a moment when healthcare.gov, the new main tool for making such insurance purchases, is not yet working properly. And while all this disruption itself is bad enough, the problem is compounded by the fact that the administration promised, explicitly and repeatedly, that this wouldn’t happen.

There’s no question that this mess reflects badly upon Obama and his administration. What remains to be seen, however, is whether the situation becomes an emblem of or a footnote to the Affordable Care Act. If the law collapses, the mass cancellations will, like the glitches with healthcare.gov, become representative of the failure of Obamacare — a sort of Bay of Pigs.

This may yet happen. But if the kinks in the implementation of Obamacare are ironed out over the next few months, weeks and years, the cancellations will quickly be forgotten.

I stand by what I wrote about this law nearly two months ago:

There’s a chance that the Affordable Care Act will work brilliantly. And there’s a chance — a bigger chance, I think — that Obamacare will fail spectacularly.

But on balance, I suspect the law will work. It will be clumsy and imperfect, yes, and some people will end up paying higher health-insurance premiums. But hundreds of thousands — hopefully even millions — of people who couldn’t afford coverage before may be able to do so thanks to some of Obamacare’s changes. And I’ve yet to see convincing evidence that any of the law’s changes will ruin American health care.

It’s early days yet, and the thing still could go either way. But I think this law will mainly be a success. And if so, while the spate of policy cancellations will reflect poorly upon Obama and the law, it will also largely be forgotten.

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