Obama’s Health Care Promise Named “Lie of the Year”
Policy + Politics

Obama’s Health Care Promise Named “Lie of the Year”

REUTERS/Larry Downing

He apologized on network television, and his aides have been doing damage control for weeks, but President Obama’s repeated assertion that under his signature health care law, “you can keep your health plan” continues to haunt him.

This week, the political fact-checking website PolitiFact named the president’s statement, “If you like your health care plan, you can keep it,” the organization’s “Lie of the Year.”

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PolitiFact editor Angie Drobnic Holan wrote, “Boiling down the complicated health care law to a sound bite proved treacherous, even for its promoter-in-chief.  Obama and his team made matters worse, suggesting they had been misunderstood all along. The stunning political uproar led to this: a rare presidential apology.” 

In countless speeches during the run-up to implementation of the Affordable Care Act, the president made a variation on the promise that individuals happy with their health care coverage would not lose it. 

To be generous to the president, this was, at best, a gross oversimplification of an extremely complex set of circumstances. First of all, the rule set minimum standards for health insurance plans that could be sold on the Healthcare.gov online marketplace that the law established. This meant that, in the most narrow and technical sense, some people with bare bones plans would not be able to “keep” their plans, because insurers would have to change them to confirm to the new rules. 

For other consumers, though, the changes were far more dramatic. Rather than being adjusted, some plans were cancelled outright and – key to the outrage over Obama’s statement that “you can keep your doctor” –new plans replacing them significantly limited consumers’ choice of both doctors and hospitals. 

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To be clear, many of the people who couldn’t “keep” their old plans suddenly found that they were eligible for better coverage at a lower price than they had before. But that wasn’t true for everyone, and political opponents of the healthcare law spared no effort tracking down such people and getting them in front of television cameras. The combination of rightly-aggrieved citizens and copious video footage of the president repeating an evident untruth proved a potent political weapon that eventually led to a presidential apology during an interview with NBC News on November 7.

The “you can keep your health plan” line continues to be repeated nearly constantly by Republicans criticizing the implementation of the Affordable Care Act rollout, and has become a touchstone of sorts for complaints about what they characterize as Democratic hypocrisy.

When Senate Democrats eliminated the filibuster for certain presidential nominations last month – despite Majority Leader Harry Reid’s past promise not to do so, his Republican counterpart Minority Leader Mitch McConnell complained on the floor of the Senate that it was as though Reid has said, “if you like your Senate rules, you can keep them.”

PolitiFact, which won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the 2008 presidential election, has come in for significant criticism from the political left for some of its previous “fact-checks.”

In 2011, PolitiFact came under fire for calling the Democrats’ claim that Republicans had “voted to end Medicare” its Lie of the Year. The vote in question was the approval of a budget proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, which permanently converted Medicare into an insurance voucher program for individuals 55 and younger.

Democrats argued that fundamentally and permanently changing the structure of the Medicare program – even if it remained “Medicare” in name – was tantamount to doing away with the program. But PolitiFact continued to list the statement as a lie.

Follow Rob Garver on Twitter @rrgarver

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