In March 2010, Barack Obama placed a giant bet on the docility and stupidity of the American people, when he decided in the face of three huge electoral warnings to force his health plan down the unwilling throats of the American people. And by November 2013, it was clear he had lost. It was not going to work. It would never be popular. And it was falling apart on its own. The HealthCare.gov website unveiled on October 1 had immediate problems, which were quickly revealed as the tip of the iceberg, as many worse things lay below.
“If you like your plan, you can keep your plan. Period,” Obama had said over three years on at least 29 different recorded occasions. But around 15 million people who bought plans for themselves on the individual market suddenly found that these had been canceled, or soon could be, and the alternatives were much more expensive plans, with higher deductibles. Dissed by the White House as a mere tiny sliver of the population, they were still a bad group to mess with, as they tended to be independent, articulate, upper-middle-class people, politically savvy, with a large number of writers among them, able to punch way above their own weight.
If the act does go down, the tip of the spear may belong to Edie Littlefield Sundby, a California woman with stage-four cancer, kept in remission these past seven years by a crack team of doctors, whose services she is shortly to lose. Her op-ed, running in the Wall Street Journal, went viral on Monday, November 4, and had wide circulation over the Internet, on talk radio, and on cable TV.
“Thanks to the law, I have been forced to give up a world-class health plan,” she wrote. “For a cancer patient, medical coverage is a matter of life and death. Take away people’s ability to control their medical coverage and they may die. I guess that’s a highly effective way to control medical costs. Perhaps that’s the point.” Chris Matthews dismissed this as a cheap, “sexy” shot at his president, but look for it to be used in 2014 against every Democrat running for office. And look for many, many more Edie Littlefield Sundbys to step forward if, as predicted, employer plans start scaling back, leaving many more millions of Americans adrift. In 2012, Obama supporters made hay with claims that Mitt Romney had caused an ex-employee’s wife to die of cancer by terminating her husband’s employment and coverage. By this standard, Obamacare will soon be a mass serial killer. How will he explain it? “If you want to make an omelet, you have to break eggs?”
And then, there’s the lie. As lies go, “If you like your plan, you can keep it” is right up there with “I am not a crook” in the annals of presidential mendacity, and way above the Bill Clinton threshold, as other people’s lives, health, and financial arrangements were not affected by whether or not he had had “sexual relations with that woman.”
According to a thorough account in the Wall Street Journal on November 2, the mendacity rested on two related rationalizations: First, that it was not Obamacare that ended the plans but the insurers who canceled them (although the law had forced them to do so); second, that the plans being canceled were “substandard” (or “crappy,” in the common phrase of defenders), which meant they did not include certain services—drug treatment, mental health treatment—that were mandated under Obamacare despite being needed and used by very few people. The Obama team knew all of this, but suggestions that they should address these points were always rejected as distracting from the impact of the message the president wished to convey.
“You try to talk about health care in broad, intelligible points that cut through and you inevitably lose some accuracy when you do that,” as one former official told the Journal. Speechwriter Jon Favreau said that the aim was simplicity. Richard Kirsch, former campaign manager of Health Care for America Now, said the words were “reassuring” and that “adding an asterisk to note that people who had shoddy insurance might need to change plans was not practical.” “The actual, accurate, statement is if you have good insurance and you like it, you can keep your plan,” he explained.
The problem was the word “good,” which in the way that Obamacare defined it meant almost none of the existing plans—a tiny detail that was never made clear. If Obama had sold a vacuum cleaner under these terms, he’d be facing prosecution for fraud.