Do you remember the first time that a representative of America’s Republican Party accused President Obama of a lie about the Affordable Care Act?
It was a fairly spectacular setting. The President was delivering his first ceremonial State of the Union speech to a joint session of Congress. When Obama declared that his health care reform proposal would not extend medical services to illegal residents, Republican Congressman Joe Wilson interrupted the speech by screaming “You Lie!”
He later apologized for his severe breach of decorum, but today, Republicans are no longer apologizing for accusing the President of telling lies about the Affordable Care Act. So did Obama lie to the American people when he claimed that “if you like your (health) plan, you can keep your (health) plan”?
The answer depends on what the President meant by the word “plan.” If he meant “health insurance policy,” then he didn’t lie. Health organizations are now cancelling “plans” that don’t meet the minimum definitions of “insurance policies.” Indeed, these companies are not cancelling insurance policies at all, but instead are cancelling more limited types of health plans.
What is the difference? Well, insurance policies are designed to cover consumers against catastrophic losses. The plans that are now being cancelled, though, often feature benefits that are limited at extremely low levels, or that permit companies to cancel coverage or drastically increase premiums once consumers become ill and need to claim benefits. Such plans are actually designed to avoid coverage for catastrophic illnesses, not to insure for them.
This is why Aetna’s home page, for instance, carefully differentiates between “health plans” and “insurance solutions” to consumers. The firm refers to “plans” and “insurance” as distinct and separate services because they design and sell them as uniquely different types of contracts.
If President Obama was thinking of “comprehensive health insurance” when he said that “if you like your plan, you can keep your plan,” then he was indeed telling the truth. If that was what he had in mind, then he wasn’t referring to the types of contracts that are now being cancelled by companies.
But if he was thinking of the types of low benefit, easily cancellable contracts that the Affordable Care Act explicitly deemed insufficient for insurance purposes, then he was not speaking truthfully. After all, the Affordable Care Act was designed to require Americans to purchase full insurance policies that provide coverage far superior to the terms of these meager plans.
So did the President lie? Reasonable people may differ; you are certainly free to decide what you will. Perhaps we can all agree, though, that it would be helpful for our political leaders to use more precise language in the future … beginning, for example, with a clear definition of a “health plan.”