Truth about a 'lie': Obama's error leaves Obamacare's value intact

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Hundreds of thousands of health insurance cancellation notices have gone out to Americans, and with each one President Barack Obama's credibility has eroded further. Republicans determined to undermine what they call Obamacare have seized upon the moment with grim relish. They say the president is a liar.

But how fair is this to the president? And what does it really say about the Affordable Care Act?

First of all, this is a problem of the president's own making. He did repeatedly say that if you like your insurance plan, you can keep it. He was three words short of the truth. All he had to add was "in most cases."

It's unlikely that this extra frankness would have hurt the political effort to sell the legislation. People understand that not everybody can be left unaffected by such a sweeping change, and Mr. Obama should have been careful not to embellish the assurance.

Was it a lie? He should have known the facts. By definition, a lie is a deliberate misstating of the truth; it is not simply something that was wrongly stated with good intentions, in this case perhaps, to make the complicated simple for public consumption. Those who believe the worst of this president will conclude that he lied; those who do not will be more charitable.

No matter how his statement is parsed, Mr. Obama made a mistake by not being scrupulously faithful to the facts from the start. Finally, on Thursday he said he was sorry that some people are losing insurance plans that he said in the beginning they could keep. His conciliatory words now do not diminish his error, particularly since he has handed a cudgel to the enemies of health care reform.

Yet the way the Republican critics maul the president over this, you would think everybody was in danger of losing their health insurance and that those whose policies were canceled would never be covered again.

In fact, these cancellations are occurring in the individual insurance market, which is a small fraction of the whole market even if millions of people are involved. Not everyone in this subset is affected; some plans have been grandfathered in.

Plans are being canceled because they don't meet the coverage set out in the Affordable Care Act and leave many people poorly insured. Those Americans who have been canceled can obtain other policies that may be more or less costly but should offer them better coverage than before.

In short, the furor of the supposed great lie is an embarrassment to Mr. Obama, but it obscures the larger and more important truth that the Affordable Care Act remains good policy.

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