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Could Obama's Health Law Vow Mean 2014 Pain For Democrats?

President Obama talks up the Affordable Care Act at Boston's historic Faneuil Hall on Wednesday.
President Obama talks up the Affordable Care Act at Boston's historic Faneuil Hall on Wednesday.

Assuming HealthCare.gov's technical problems are largely fixed by November's end, as Obama administration officials have reassured, Democrats will still face an even headier challenge: They must square with reality President Obama's oft-made promise that the new health care law would allow people to keep existing insurance plans they like.

It turns out that promise isn't entirely true.

Yes, most people who get their health insurance through large employers aren't likely to see major changes.

But for the millions who buy their health insurance through the individual market, changes prompted by the Affordable Care Act are definitely happening. Among them: people finding insurance cancellation letters in their mailboxes.

Although the law includes a provision for some existing policies to continue even if they don't meet Obamacare's minimum coverage standards, some insurance companies are dropping such policies rather than claim their "grandfathered" exception. And people who held (and perhaps liked) those minimalist policies and what they cost now must find insurance elsewhere.

In a Boston speech Wednesday partly aimed at rebutting charges that he misled Americans through blanket statements about individuals maintaining coverage they liked, Obama suggested he always played it straight. Any misunderstanding must've come from elsewhere:

"Now if you had one of these substandard plans before the Affordable Care Act became law and you really liked that plan, you were able to keep it. That's what I said when I was running for office.

"That was part of the promise we made.

"But ever since the law was passed, if insurers decided to downgrade or cancel these substandard plans, what we said under the law is, you've got to replace them with quality, comprehensive coverage because that too was a central premise of the Affordable Care Act from the very beginning."

That's obviously the spin the administration landed on; Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius delivered a similar message during her House Energy and Commerce Committee testimony Wednesday.

The problem for the administration and congressional Democrats who support the law, however, is that the president has repeatedly made some variation of this simple promise: "If you like your health care plan, you can keep it."

Obama may not have intended a bait-and-switch, but the accusations have gained traction because so many people — generally those who bought their own insurance — clearly won't be allowed to hold on to existing policies under the ACA.

Those charges play into the Republican narrative that Obamacare is bad law with terrible consequences for Americans. And Obama's explanation only fueled more Republican criticisms. Attack ads have already started, and conceivably could continue from now until Election Day 2014 if Democrats can't figure out a way to neutralize the problem.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said:

"It's beyond disappointing that, despite the evidence, the president continues to mislead the American people about his health care law. The president promised that if you like your health care plan, you can keep it. It wasn't true when he said it years ago, and, as millions of Americans are finding out, it's not true now."

For congressional Democrats already made nervous by the severe technical problems experienced by the federal health exchange website on its launch, the focus on insurance policy cancellations only adds to anxieties as they head into a difficult midterm election year.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., a red-state Democrat who occupies a Senate seat Republicans view as a potential pickup, said Tuesday she planned to introduce a bill to allow people to retain insurance they like.

That is exactly the right move for congressional Democrats, said Steve McMahon, a Democratic political consultant at Purple Strategies.

"If I were in the Senate today, I would go to [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid and say, 'Let's grandfather everybody in as a matter of policy,' " McMahon said. "Let's pass a fix. And then drop it over on the House side."

Of course, Republicans might be loath to fix the law, since their stated goal has been to repeal or defund it and they want to keep its flaws alive as an issue.

"They won't do anything with it," predicted McMahon of the GOP-controlled House. "But it makes their hypocrisy much clearer to everyone."

Democrats "have two choices right now" when it comes to those losing their policies because of Obamacare, says McMahon: "You can either say to them, 'Hey, I'm really sorry about that.' Or you can say, 'We fixed it and the Republicans didn't.' Which would you rather say if you were a Democratic officeholder?"

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