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As Americans lose coverage, Democrats say Obama too rosy about health care law

As millions of people receive notices that their health insurance is being canceled, the White House said Tuesday that President Obama didn't mislead the public when he repeatedly and emphatically promised that everyone could keep their plan under Obamacare.

Top aides to the president said that, although Mr. Obama never mentioned it specifically, his promise referred only to people who have had uninterrupted health insurance coverage dating back to before the law's enactment in 2010.

But even Obama allies such as House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, acknowledged that the president's promises were overly broad. Mr. Hoyer said Mr. Obama's message "was not precise enough."

"Clearly, it should have been caveated with, 'Assuming you have a policy that, in fact, does do what the bill is designed to do,'" Mr. Hoyer said.

Republican lawmakers, and some of the nearly 7 million consumers who could receive cancellation notices, say Mr. Obama has been lying to them.

"If the president knew that these [cancellation] letters were coming and still indicated that you could keep your health care plan if you liked it, now, that raises some serious questions about the sales job of Obamacare," said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican.

On social media, the reaction was more harsh. In a comment that was typical of the mounting criticism, a woman on Twitter with the handle of @KatLadyNE called the administration "pathetic liars."

White House press secretary Jay Carney said Mr. Obama "was clear about a basic fact."

"If you had a plan before the Affordable Care Act that you liked on the individual market, and your insurance company provided you the same plan this whole time, you can keep it."

But that was not what millions of Americans heard the president pledging over the past five years. In August 2009, for example, Mr. Obama decried what he called "outrageous myths circulating on the Internet, on cable TV, and repeated at some town halls across this country" about the health care legislation.

"As I've said from the beginning, under the reform we seek, if you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor," Mr. Obama said. "If you like your private health insurance plan, you can keep your plan. Period."

In a June 2009 speech to the American Medical Association, Mr. Obama declared emphatically: "No matter how we reform health care, we will keep this promise to the American people: If you like your doctor, you will be able to keep your doctor, period. If you like your health care plan, you'll be able to keep your health care plan, period. No one will take it away, no matter what."

Even as late as March, Mr. Obama spoke in the present tense when he told Americans, "If you like the plan that you have, you can keep it, period."

Critics noted that the Affordable Care Act is forcing insurers to drop many of their plans that don't meet the law's 10 minimum standards, including maternity care, emergency visits and mental health treatment.

As a result, insurance companies across the country have sent cancellation notices to more than 2 million people who had purchased policies on the individual market. In New Jersey, there are 800,000; in Florida, 300,000; in California, 279,000; and in Michigan, 140,000.

One industry analyst has estimated that as many as 7 million people will have their policies canceled, requiring them to shop for plans under Obamacare that are often more expensive, especially if the consumer doesn't qualify for a taxpayer-funded subsidy.

An insurance industry specialist, Larry Levitt of the Kaiser Family Foundation, said insurance companies have no choice but to take these actions. "It is administratively easier to cancel than change plans," he said on his Twitter account.

As the furor grew Tuesday over canceled policies, the White House and its Democratic allies increasingly were casting blame on the insurance industry instead of the law.

Democrats raised a trial balloon for this offensive late Monday night from two key presidential aides.

Valerie Jarrett, one of President Obama's most trusted advisers, wrote on her Twitter account: "Nothing in #Obamacare forces people out of their health plans. No change is required unless insurance companies change existing plans." Deputy press secretary Eric Schultz published a near-identical tweet: "Don't be fooled. Nothing in the ACA forces people out of their plans. No change is required unless ins companies change their existing plan"

The comments prompted a furious reaction, including from one conservative blogger who likened Ms. Jarrett's explanation to saying "there's nothing about land mines that forces explosions."

The Democratic pushback coincided with a flurry of Capitol Hill activity on the botched Obamacare rollout.

At a House Ways and Means Committee hearing, the head of the agency overseeing the law apologized Tuesday to people who have tried to use the flawed federal website.

The House investigative panel issued a subpoena against Quality Software Services Inc. demanding documents that will show whether the contractor hired to build the federal Obamacare website took precautions on data security.

The White House tried to emphasize Tuesday that 80 percent of Americans will keep their insurance coverage, and "only" 5 percent of consumers will be required to purchase policies by March 31 — about 14 million people. Mr. Carney characterized the current insurance market as "the Wild West," saying it has been "underregulated."

As a result, he said, unscrupulous insurance companies have been free to leave consumers unprotected in a health care crisis.

"They could throw you off. They could jack up your premiums. They could change your coverage," Mr. Carney said, ironically citing the same complaints of people whose policies are being canceled as a result of Obamacare.

When a reporter confronted Mr. Carney with the fact that many consumers are being forced out of plans they like, the president's spokesman replied, "If you want to make that point, you can."

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