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Can Obama’s Promise Still Be Kept?

Between the military cuts, the push to expand subprime mortgages, the colossal failure of Mideast peace negotiations, and the recession that greeted his exit from office, Bill Clinton made a habit of ill-considered policies that he would later, in true Clintonesque fashion, blame on his successors. So it is with some sympathy that I read Ezra Klein’s take on the former president’s role in the recent health-care debacle.

As Jonathan noted yesterday, Clinton took a shot at President Obama for his promise that if people liked their health-care plans they could keep them. Klein counters that Clinton poisoned the well for his successors, making clear messaging on health-care reform impossible. Clinton, he explains, tried to pass a health-care reform law that would upend the insurance market, thus dooming the plan because most people who have insurance tend to be happy with it. Klein continues:

In the aftermath of Clinton’s failure, health-care reformers swung far to the other side. Rather than building a plan in which almost everyone lost their insurance, they began trying to build plans in which almost no one lost their insurance — and selling them under the promise that literally no one would.

Klein is right that it takes a certain chutzpah for Clinton to kick sand in Obama’s face in order to help his wife’s potential 2016 presidential campaign. But Klein’s argument only goes so far. Klein is essentially arguing that Clinton’s health-care experience had two major effects on the current law: that it would be crafted to minimize insurance turnover, and that Obama would have to sell the plan by pushing a major falsehood. Neither of those two things is true, but the latter–that Clinton deserves the blame for someone else’s lie–seems pretty unjustifiable.

The idea that ObamaCare was designed to enable people to keep their insurance is not accurate. As we know, it was designed to kick large numbers of people off their insurance by rendering many existing plans noncompliant. But the more important part of Clinton’s statement is that Obama should keep his promise, because it’s unclear, as Politico explains, that he can:

Allowing the 2013 plans to continue to operate into 2014 — a proposal that has generated interest in Congress — is considered unlikely. Insurers wouldn’t be able to quickly restore plans that are already being shut down and it would undercut some central promises of Obama’s signature law.

Jonathan Gruber, one of the authors of the Massachusetts health plan and an MIT economics professor, says such an idea is impractical. There is no “free lunch” in which people can just decide not to join the Obamacare plans, which were priced on the assumption that the insurers would get a certain number of customers.

The White House is “just reacting to one broken promise by imposing a much larger and harmful one: our promise to insurers that if they priced fairly, we would deliver a broad pool of insured,” Gruber wrote in an email. “If you allow the healthy enrollees to stay out in their old policy, the insurers lose money and the program falls apart.”

The “keep your insurance” nonsense wasn’t the only broken promise, and fixing it may require breaking other promises. ObamaCare was always unwise policy, but it’s becoming clear to the public just how faulty this reform law is. That surely has something to do with the latest dismal polling on Obama from Quinnipiac. The most telling result in the poll is probably the fact that when asked whether they trust Obama or Republicans in Congress more on health care, congressional Republicans edge the president 43-42 percent. Here’s Quinnipiac’s trend chart to show the significance of it:

quinnipiacHC

The president has dropped eleven points on that question since his high of July 2009. But the danger here is not just that Americans find Republicans more trustworthy on the president’s signature issue. It’s that these numbers may not represent the president’s floor.

It now appears, as the Washington Post reports, that the Healthcare.gov website may not be fixed by its end-of-November deadline. In light of the other issues, the website may seem like the least of the administration’s troubles. But it’s not, because if the numbers of those who get kicked off their insurance plans keep rising, and those policies can’t be reinstated, then a broken exchange website means that ObamaCare will have cost many their insurance and is now keeping them from getting new insurance.

They can extend the deadline for compliance with the individual mandate all they want: those losing their insurance due to the health-care law that is also preventing them from getting new insurance are probably not worrying primarily about the mandate noncompliance penalty. They are worried about the rest of the damage ObamaCare is doing to their health care and that of millions of others because of a promise that wasn’t, and probably can’t be, kept.


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