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The canceled policies flap

Our view: A bad website is one thing, but latest attack on Obamacare greatly exaggerates the 'dropped insurance policy' phenomenon

12:53 PM EDT, October 30, 2013

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Here's the latest attack on health care reform in a nutshell: In recent weeks, health insurance companies are sending out hundreds of thousands of letters of policy cancellation. Isn't that a direct contradiction to President Barack Obama's repeated pledge that Americans would not lose their coverage as a result of the Affordable Care Act?

Of course, Republicans and their allies don't express that concern so politely. They point it out with outrage, indignation and venom — and quite a few did so repeatedly to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in her appearance Wednesday before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

But like most attacks on Obamacare, this requires one to have a quite narrow, and therefore misleading, view of what is going on. Yes, many who buy individual, and not the far more common group, health plans are getting shuffled around by insurers but that's hardly a calamity. In most cases, it's because their current policies don't meet minimum standards and more important, they are getting a chance to acquire better coverage at a more affordable price.

Getting dropped may cause some momentary discomfort and some may even face higher premiums (simply because their old policies covered so little), but that pales in comparison to the millions of Americans who stand to benefit from the ACA. Just talk to those who couldn't afford any coverage before, lacked adequate prescription drug coverage or were dropped by companies for pre-existing conditions.

We can't speak for the White House, but it's pretty clear what he meant when he claimed, repeatedly, that the health care reform law doesn't call for people to lose coverage they like — the average American doesn't. Perhaps he might have been more nuanced — it doesn't mean anybody losing "quality" coverage they like. Of course, that probably wouldn't have satisfied critics who are so dead-set against health care reform anyway.

Keeping in mind that only about 5 percent of Americans buy coverage through the individual market, is this really a broken promise? It might be more in the category of a doctor telling a patient that drawing blood won't hurt. For most people, that's true but there are always the bad "sticks" where a vein is missed and there's some pain. Would the patient have been better off getting a full disclosure or the original, realistic assessment?

We've said it before and we'll say it again. The online marketplace is off to a miserable start and Secretary Sebelius and others must be held accountable for its poor performance. If the problems aren't fixed in a reasonable time, heads should roll.

But when it comes to Obamacare, House Republicans can't help themselves. After voting, unsuccessfully, to kill the law dozens of times and even shutting down government over it — not to mention pushing the country to the brink of default — they can offer only an exaggerated reaction to every rumor or every potential problem ever associated with anything even tangentially related to health insurance.

First, it was socialism, then it was death panels. Now, it's a sudden nostalgia for the individual marketplace, the same poorly regulated "wild west" arena that famously produces one-year policies with high co-pays and capped benefits. As Rep. Eliot Engel of New York observed, the GOP isn't all that interested in finding out why the web site isn't working and how to fix it, only in rooting for Obamacare's failure.

Enough is enough. It's time Congress focused on fixing the law's problems and not on using televised hearings to make political points for the tea party voters back home. The time for sabotaging Obamacare is past, now is the time to focus on performance and accountability. But that seems to be a difficult transition for some.

Millions of Americans stand to get health insurance for the first time. That's the prize lawmakers should be focused on. State-based exchanges are already signing up hundreds of thousands of people to private coverage. Too bad so many GOP-controlled states chose not to establish such marketplaces, greatly damaging the sign-up effort, or were willing to accept expanded federally-funded Medicaid coverage.

This is a complex undertaking and the web site's performance doesn't exactly instill confidence. But if the worst thing that comes of it is a claim that President Obama should have made clear that people who purchased health care coverage through the individual market might have to shop around for a better policy, we suspect posterity will judge the transition as a huge success.