By Alexander Bolton and Bob Cusack - 10/31/13 06:00 AM EDT
Democratic leaders in Congress echoed President Obama’s promise in 2009 that people would not lose their healthcare plans if they liked them.
Republicans have pounced on Obama’s repeated pitch for the healthcare overhaul, especially after plans across the country recently mailed out policy cancellation notices.
The president wasn’t the only one making big promises on ObamaCare.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who rallied all members of his caucus to support the landmark law, promised the Affordable Care Act (ACA) would let people keep the insurance plans they had at the time.
Reid touted that aspect of the law among its other benefits.
Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) made the same promise two days later.
“Many people say: ‘I like my health insurance right now. I don’t want to change. I don’t want to go into Medicare or Medicaid. I like what I have. Would you please leave people alone?’ ” Durbin said.
“The answer is yes,” he added. “In fact, we guarantee it. We are going to put in any legislation considered by the House and Senate the protection that you, as an individual, keep the health insurance you have, if that is what you want.”
Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said on June 10, 2009: “If you like what you have today, that will be what you have when this legislation is passed.”
Murray was defending the legislative initiative from Republican criticisms that it would force thousands of people to switch plans.
“[Then-]Sen. [Jon] Kyl [R-Ariz.] is saying something that doesn’t reflect the position of the president, nor any Democrat I know in Congress,” she said. “We believe — and we stand by this — if you like your current health insurance plan, you will be able to keep it, plain and simple, straightforward.”
House lawmakers who made similar claims at the time include Reps. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) and Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas).
“I don’t think the message was wrong. I think the message was accurate. It was not precise enough,” House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) told reporters Tuesday.
Hoyer said the statements should have included the caveat, “assuming you have a policy that in fact does do what the bill is designed to do.”
The primary reason why insurance companies are dropping some plans is because they don’t comply with a minimum benefit mandate that was included in ObamaCare. Proponents of the law say the people in terminated plans will end up with better healthcare plans. Critics note that some, if not most, will be paying more in premiums.
The Washington Post’s Fact Checker column gave “Four Pinocchios” to Obama’s declaration in June 2009 that, “If you like your doctor, you will be able to keep your doctor, period. If you like your healthcare plan, you’ll be able to keep your healthcare plan, period.”
Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) said Obama’s promise was the centerpiece of the Democratic effort to sell comprehensive healthcare reform to a skeptical public.
“It wasn’t just some throwaway line. This was the central tenet of their promise. This is what they used to sell Obama-Care to people who didn’t want it,” he said.
A spokesman for Durbin said Wednesday that people who might lose their plans would have access to better options through the healthcare law.
“A small percentage of the 15 or so million people who purchase their health insurance on the individual market are being notified that they will now have access to better, more affordable plans as a result of the minimum standards the Affordable Care Act puts in place,” said Max Gleischman, Durbin’s aide.
He argued that people aren’t losing coverage or being forced into plans they don’t want.
“The whole point of the Affordable Care Act is to reform the individual insurance marketplace to provide consumers with choices for affordable, comprehensive health insurance,” he said. “This shows that the law is working.”
Centrist Democrats facing tough races in 2014 are growing nervous about the fallout of people losing their health plans after receiving promises that would not happen.
Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) said Wednesday she is working on legislation that would allow people to keep their health insurance plans if they like them.
Republican Sen. Ron Johnson (Wis.) on Wednesday introduced the “If You Like Your Health Care Plan You Can Keep It” Act. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is a co-sponsor.
House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) has a companion bill, which could be voted on next month.
Republicans, many of whom said years ago that Obama’s promise was empty, say they have been vindicated.
“One of the most important promises made by President Obama and Democrat congressional leadership to promote the Affordable Care Act was that Americans who were satisfied with their health plans could keep them. That promise has been broken,” said Johnson.
“More than a million Americans have been notified that the plans they like with the coverage they have chosen have been canceled,” he added.
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) did not envision that scenario when he defended the law on the floor in September 2010.
“One of the things we put in the healthcare bill when we designed it was the protection for consumers to keep the plan they have if they like it; thus the term ‘grandfathered plans.’ If you have a plan you like — existing policies — you can keep them,” he said.
Harkin’s spokeswoman Kate Frischmann pointed out that those who are receiving cancellation notices “will be able to enroll in a new plan with new benefits and protections that do not discriminate based on pre-existing conditions; do not deny them key benefits like maternity, mental health, or prescription drug coverage; and cannot drop you when you’re sick. That was the goal of the ACA — to expand access to comprehensive care.”
What many Democrats failed to anticipate is that healthcare plans tend to change over time as insurance companies tweak them in ways that are not always obvious to the policyholders. As a result, many plans that lawmakers thought would have been exempted from the law’s stringent requirements under the grandfather clause no longer comply with the law.
“Republicans said at the time this would not be the case, and this would be another broken promise. Unfortunately, we were right. This should not be a surprise to anyone,” said Stewart, McConnell’s spokesman.
Haley Bissegger and Patrick Mortiere contributed.