PolitiFact: Obama said ‘like it, keep it.’ There were no caveats

“What we said was, you can keep (your plan) if it hasn’t changed since the law passed.” -- President Barack Obama during a speech Monday to Organizing for Action

President Barack Obama’s attempt at explanation has only fanned the flames of controversy over his campaign line, “If you like your health care, you can keep it.”

Obama was already dealing with a troubled rollout of the healthcare.gov website when reports of health insurance cancellation notices for many Americans started arriving.

Such notices have been common only for people buying insurance on the individual market, which accounts for about 5 percent of Americans. But the existence of people in that situation struck many critics as contradicting his like-it, keep-it promise.

Obama’s speech Monday at a meeting of Organizing for Action, his campaign organization, seemed to offer a new, and confusing, wrinkle.

“Now, if you have or had one of these plans before the Affordable Care Act came into law and you really liked that plan, what we said was you can keep it if it hasn’t changed since the law passed,” Obama said.

The way we read that comment was that Obama was saying that people had been misreporting the pledge he had made.

It wasn’t that he said “if you like your plan, you can keep it” — it was “if your plan hasn’t changed since the law passed,” you can keep it.

We wondered whether there was any evidence that Obama had used this particular caveat in the past.

First, a brief reminder of why some Americans are getting cancellation notices.

Under the new law, policies must cover a comprehensive set of benefits, including emergency care, maternity care, mental health or prescription drugs. If they don’t, they can be “grandfathered” in.

To be grandfathered, the plans must have operated continuously since before the law’s enactment in 2010 and have made no significant changes. This means the insurer can keep the insurance plan essentially as is, without having to implement many (though not all) of the new law’s requirements.

But the regulations defining what constitutes a significant change are tight — and if it’s breached, the plan is on the road to oblivion.

We should note that Obama’s comments often were aimed at the general public. And most people do get to keep their health plans under his law, especially those who get insurance through work or Medicare. His plan specifically left the existing health care system in place while reducing the ranks of the uninsured.

Here at PolitiFact, we noticed last year that Obama’s comments were too sweeping and that it was unlikely that all Americans would be able to keep their insurance.

We decided to look back from all the public statements we could find about people being allowed to keep their plans. We found at least 37 times where Obama made a variation of the pledge that if you like your plan, you can keep it.

Overall, we didn’t find one instance in which Obama offered a caveat that it only applies to plans that hadn’t changed after the law’s passage.

The day after Obama claimed that he’d said “you can keep it if it hasn’t changed since the law passed,” reporters grilled White House Press Secretary Jay Carney.

Carney claimed Obama was referring to the rules that Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius issued in June 2010.

“When the rule was issued, Secretary Sebelius and others spoke to the press about it … if insurance companies changed their plans or canceled their plans, they would give up the opportunity to grandfather those plans in June of 2010,” Carney said. “There was a fair amount of coverage of that in major newspapers.”

The White House pointed us to a June 14, 2010, telephone news conference with Sebelius on the rules.

“If you have a plan that you like, you keep it, but if indeed insurers or employers decide to make dramatic shifts, to the detriment of employees, huge cost shifts, huge increases in deductibles, slashing benefits, whatever, they then no longer qualify for the grandfather status, because that’s really a change in the plan, and that isn’t a plan that most people like very much,” she said.

The White House also offered several news articles published at the time that reported Sebelius’ comments.

Finally, the White House provided a series of other comments in which the administration offered a more nuanced formulation of the like-it, keep-it policy, but they were all made in the past month, during the time when criticism was already emerging.

Our ruling

On Monday, Obama said, “What we said was you can keep (your plan) if it hasn’t changed since the law passed.”

But we found at least 37 times since Obama’s inauguration where he or a top administration official made a variation of the pledge that if you like your plan, you can keep it, and we never found an instance in which he offered the caveat that it only applies to plans that hadn’t changed after the law’s passage. And seven of those 37 cases came after the release of the HHS regulations that defined the “grandfathering” process, when the impact would be clear.

While Sebelius’ teleconference with reporters did provide that sort of caveat, but her one mention of the extent to which grandfathered plans might be doomed strikes us as the equivalent of the fine print on a television commercial running in heavy rotation. Obama is ignoring the overwhelming majority of times he addressed the issue, where most people would have heard it. We rate his claim Pants On Fire.

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