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September 3, 2014

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Obama’s whopper bites him back

Here’s what President Barack Obama should have said, “If you like your insurance plan you can keep it — if it’s not a junk policy.”

He could have used more elegant language than that, but you get the idea.

Instead, as everyone who follows the news knows, he promoted his Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, with: “If you like your health care plan, you’ll be able to keep your health care plan.”

Sometimes he even added: “Period. No one will take it away. No matter what.”

And no mention on his part, even as the bill was making its way through a Senate committee in June 2009, that the Congressional Budget Office was challenging that claim. Millions of Americans could be forced off their policies and onto the law’s new state insurances exchanges, the CBO said. So did some Republican lawmakers and the independent Factcheck.org and Politifact.

Yet between 2008 and 2010, the president repeated his you-can-keep-your-plan promise in public at least 24 times, according to a video compilation on New York magazine’s website.

Now the truth is hitting thousands of Americans, mostly in the 5 percent of the nation’s population who buy individual insurance policies. Analysts estimate that more than half of these plans are being canceled because their inexpensive bare-bones coverage doesn’t cover all or, in some cases, any of the new health care law’s required benefits.

The new minimum standards require all health plans to carry mental health benefits, prescription drug coverage, vaccinations, dental and vision care for children, maternity care for women, and more. Many policyholders also face sticker-shock increases in the cost of new policies that they are being offered.

Those who lose their old plans, the Obama administration points out, can find new plans with better coverage in Obamacare’s online exchanges — if they can get through the troubled healthcare.gov website. Many also will qualify for subsidies, if their income is low enough.

Still, Obama did himself no favors by glossing over the simple reality: While the vast majority will get a better insurance deal, depending on their circumstances, a significant number will not. They also, understandably, are making more noise about it than those who are pleased with their new coverage.

And, of course, there are some folks who may get a better deal but still don’t like to have government tell them what’s good for them — even about something that really is good for them.

Whether I agree with their judgment or not, everyone was entitled to hear the unvarnished truth, not spin, from their president about what they were about to face.

I don’t feel good about calling out the president’s whopper, since I support most of his policies and programs. But in this instance, he would have to be delusional to think he was telling the truth.

At best — and it isn’t much — he told what I would call a “political lie,” the sort of rosy promise that politicians sometimes make with such passion and confidence that they actually may have convinced even themselves that it is true. President George H.W. Bush’s 1988 “Read my lips, no new taxes” promise comes to mind.

But political liars pay a political price. The elder Bush actually did the right thing, in my view, when he broke his fiscally reckless vow. The new revenue his tax hike brought in helped to stimulate an economic recovery in the 1990s, even though it enraged conservatives and helped to sink his 1992 re-election bid.

Obama’s whopper similarly was told with a laudable goal in mind: the elimination of stripped-down health plans that cover too little and leave too many policyholders vulnerable to bankruptcy in the event of a major illness or injury.

Now it remains to be seen how many of those who lose their policies will sign up for new ones or go uninsured instead and pay the law’s modest penalties. That move would undercut Obamacare’s aim to pool risks and share costs in the individual market just as they are in employer plans, where younger, healthier workers subsidize older, sicker ones.

Sometimes straight talk can be a bitter pill for voters to swallow, but it’s better than snake oil.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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