Jonathan Cohn

Senior Editor

Here are two facts that have gotten very little attention amid all the controversy about insurance plan cancellations and “rate shock.”Fact one: Thanks to Obamacare’ subsidies, several million people now have the opportunity to get private insurance at essentially no cost.Fact two: Those ultra-cheap policies are pretty threadbare. They might keep people out of bankruptcy, but they still would leave beneficiaries exposed to thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket expenses a year.

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If you’ve followed the stories of insurance cancellations related to Obamacare, you may have heard about Dianne Barrette. She’s the 57-year-old Florida realtor who was paying $54 a month for a Blue Cross insurance plan. The plan won’t be available after December. And while FloridaBlue offered her a new plan, the company told her the premium would be $591 a month. Barrette, who makes $30,000 a year and could not pay for such a plan, was flabbergasted.

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President Obama on Friday acknowledged that some people are losing their current health plans because those plans don't live up to the Obamacare's standards for benefits and pricing. The acknowledgement is true and overdue, given the president's frequent promise that "you can keep your plan" if you like it. But how many people? 

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President Obama was in Boston on Wednesday—not to watch a baseball game, but to send a message about health care reform: The idea really works. Given all the news about Obamacare lately, it’s a message the country very much needs to hear. The template for the Affordable Care Act is the reforms that Massachusetts officials enacted in 2006.

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Republicans are outraged that some Americans must give up their current insurance plans because they don't satisfy Obamacare's new regulations for benefits and pricing. Partly they are mad at President Obama, because he repeatedly said people who like their coverage would get to keep it. And that’s fine. As I said yesterday, Obama should have said "most" people, not "all" people.

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NBC's Obamacare "Scoop" Is Actually Three Years Old

But the underlying issue is a real one

Obama's statement was somewhere between an oversimplication and a falsehood. But the hysterical stories missed it.

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Administration officials are saying that healthcare.gov will be “functioning smoothly” by the end of November. And maybe they are right, in which case all the fuss about broken websites will become a historical footnote.But what if administration officials are wrong? What if it’s December and Obamacare’s official online portals are still barely functional? 

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The conversation about Obamacare shifted a bit over the weekend. Nobody has forgotten about the technical problems with healthcare.gov. But now critics are also focusing on something else: Reports of sharp premium increases that some individual consumers are facing. In the last few weeks, several hundred thousand Americans have received notices from their health insurance companies, effectively cancelling their existing policies. These consumers can get new policies, of course, but frequently they have to pay more for them.

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The Obama Administration has spent a lot of time downplaying the problems with healthcare.gov. It hasn’t spent a lot of time talking about the real problems, how extensive they are, or by when it plans to fix them. That changed on Friday, when the Administration made three key announcements during its now-daily conference call on the status of repairs:

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Sorting out the commentary on Obamacare is a lot less important than sorting out Obamacare. But an interesting and potentially important debate has started in the last few days—one that gets at why the failures (so far) are so depressing and how (hopefully) the administration can fix them.

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