Saturday, October 25th, 2014

‘If you like your health insurance, you can keep it’

Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services, testified before a House committee on Oct. 30, 2013, about the health care law's implementation.
Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services, testified before a House committee on Oct. 30, 2013, about the health care law's implementation.

Last updated on Thursday, October 31st, 2013 at 10:09 a.m.

It’s the question-du-jour about the new health care law: Are people going to be able to keep their health insurance if they like it?

President Barack Obama has several times said yes. We’ve been skeptical of that claim (along with a few other claims from the law’s supporters.) Last year, we rated his statement Half True.

Obama’s statement had a reasonable point: His health care law does take pains to allow Americans to keep their health plan, especially people who get their insurance through work.

But most people have never been able to keep their insurance through thick and thin. Even before the law took effect, a substantial number of policyholders were forced to switch plans every year. Figures from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office suggested that the law could increase that rate, not reduce it, even if Americans on balance benefit from the law’s provisions mandating comprehensive coverage.

That complicated reality hasn’t stopped the law’s critics from attacking Obama for breaking a promise.

David Axelrod, an Obama adviser, and U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., debated just that issue on MSNBC’s Morning Joe.

Coburn focused on people who have to buy insurance on their own (it’s called the individual market) who have been receiving cancellation letters in recent days. "You're no longer eligible to buy your own plan, which was the No. 1 promise that the president made to the American people," Coburn said.

Axelrod’s response: "The majority of people in this country, the vast majority of people in this country, are keeping their plan. People who are uninsured are going to have choices they never had before."

We ran through the numbers and found that the individual market accounts for about 6 percent of Americans who now have health care. The health care law requires those policies to offer comprehensive coverage, and that means some of the old policies are no longer allowed.

Experts told us there is no precise data to determine how many people will be forced to change health care plans, but they generally agreed the number will be small this year. We rated Axelrod’s statement Mostly True.

Not so accurate were comments on Twitter from White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett: "FACT: Nothing in #Obamacare forces people out of their health plans. No change is required unless insurance companies change existing plans."

While it’s technically true that the insurer makes the final decision, the insurer’s choices are, to a great degree, limited by the law and the way it’s been implemented by the administration.

Saying there’s "nothing" in the law that forces people out of their health plans is a pretty extreme claim -- one that implies that insurers who pull the plug on non-Obamacare-compliant plans are acting in some sort of government-free vacuum. The insurers are canceling policies because the law and its regulations have created a context in which, sooner or later, old-fashioned plans will inevitably pass into oblivion -- as the law always intended. We rated the statement False.

Some of the law’s critics have talked about the cancellation notices together with the fact that healthcare.gov, the federal government’s online insurance marketplace, is plagued by problems and isn’t working properly.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said on Fox News that when you put those two things together, people getting cancellation notices from their insurers won’t be able to buy health insurance.

"On this very day in Florida, it was announced that 300,000 people are going to lose their individual coverage because of Obamacare," Rubio said. "Now those people next year, they don’t have health insurance. They are going to owe the IRS money in the form of a fine. Where are they supposed to go now and buy that health insurance if the website isn’t working, if Consumer Reports is telling people to avoid the website?"

Rubio is right about the people getting cancellation letters, but the letters also state that consumers will have "continuous health care coverage" and assigned them a particular plan, or gave them the option to contact Florida Blue and choose another plan.

So their coverage is not dependent on being able to buy insurance through healthcare.gov, the government’s online marketplace. We rated his statement Mostly False.

Finally, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius testified before Congress on Oct. 30 and had to fend off questions about why she wasn't buying her own coverage through the marketplaces.

"If I have affordable coverage in my workplace, I'm not eligible to go into the marketplace. ... It’s illegal," she said.

That's not true. While it's not financially smart for most people to give up their workplace insurance and shop in the marketplaces, it's hardly illegal. Another wrinkle: Sebelius actually qualifies for Medicare, the government-run insurance program for those over 65. Medicare recipients aren't meant to shop on the marketplaces, either.

But the idea that people who get insurance through work are legally prohibited from shopping on the marketplace just isn't correct. We rated her statement Pants on Fire!