The charitable way of putting it is that Obama oversold details of the healthcare-reform law in his speeches.
His critics say he flat-out lied.
This wouldn't even be an issue if Obama had qualified his remarks simply by adding that you'd be able to keep your insurance as long as it meets minimum standards for coverage, which is a big part of what
Here's the thing, though: The rules of the road for healthcare reform have been — and remain — a moving target. For months, not even insurers have known what their requirements would be.
Rick Lashbrook's experience with Anthem Blue Cross bears that out.
Lashbrook, 42, of
In March, Lashbrook saw that his premium was approaching $1,000 a month for a family of four, so he asked an Anthem sales rep if there was a cheaper plan for his needs.
The rep recommended a plan with a monthly rate of $577. Sounded good, Lashbrook thought, but he was concerned that it might not comply with the Affordable Care Act and thus wouldn't be any good after Jan. 1.
The Anthem rep replied by email: "Yes, it is compliant. You don't have to change."
There it is, in writing.
In September, however, Lashbrook received a notice from Anthem saying that his new plan was being canceled because it didn't comply with the reform law. The insurer recommended that he turn instead to a plan with a monthly premium of about $750.
"I don't think they acted in bad faith," Lashbrook told me when I asked whether he thought Anthem had lied to him. "It's unfortunate that this happened, but the plan obviously didn't meet the standards of the new law."
Darrel Ng, an Anthem spokesman, said the sales rep never should have vouched for a plan's Obamacare compliance.
"While the understanding of the Affordable Care Act's impacts continued to evolve as federal and state authorities issued guidance and regulations over the last three years, our sales associate should not have made that assurance," he said.
It's not my intent to excuse Anthem — or Obama — for misleading people about healthcare reform.
This is hard stuff, and consumers are trying their best to make informed decisions about the right move for themselves and their families. Any time they receive bad info, no matter how well-intended, that only complicates things.
But did anyone seriously believe that a law this complex would be rolled out in pristine condition?
"Clearly we should have been expecting some bumps and bruises along the way," said Dana Goldman, director of USC's Leonard D. Schaeffer Center for Health Policy and Economics. "You can't reform 16% of the economy and get it right the first time."
The president misspoke in singing the reform law's praises. But the sin here is one of omission — that there would be minimum standards for acceptable policies — not of spreading a blatant falsehood.
Miriam Laugesen, an assistant professor of health policy at
First, she said, they might not realize how shoddy some older plans are, providing minimal coverage at relatively high prices.
Second, Laugesen said, many people might not realize that subsidies available under Obamacare will ultimately allow people to obtain more comprehensive coverage at a lower cost than they might be paying under their current plans.
"Obama was actually telling the truth," she said. "The law says you can grandfather in older policies. But that would only be if the plans met the conditions of the law and remained the same."
Shana Alex Lavarreda, director of health insurance studies at UCLA's Center for Health Policy Research, said Obama "underestimated the fact that there was a market for bad plans."
In other words, the shapers of the Affordable Care Act assumed that people would jump at the chance to receive better coverage at a better price.
They didn't factor in the idea that some people, because of either ignorance or stubbornness, would remain loyal to their old plans, regardless of how much they could improve things under Obamacare.
I wish I knew why Obama has had such a hard time selling healthcare reform. It's pretty sad that a man of his public-speaking abilities has been so incompetent at communicating details of the most important social-policy legislation in a generation.
Moreover, it's not as if he's pitching a pig in a poke. Obamacare has many genuinely positive features, including guaranteed coverage for all and an end to caps on insurance payouts.
Is it perfect? No. But the healthcare system envisioned by the reform law is a heck of a lot better than what we've been saddled with for decades.
So, yes, the president wasn't as clear as he should have been. You can call him a liar if you want. But I see a clear difference between not offering the full story and making stuff up out of whole cloth.
I mean, it's not as if he publicly insisted that so-called death panels would decide people's medical treatment, or that most small businesses would be crippled by the reform law or that the government is taking over the entire healthcare system.
That's what his critics have been saying.
Those are some serious lies.