In June 2009, as he fought to pass the Democrats’ national health care bill, President Obama made a clear, unequivocal pledge. “No matter how we reform health care, we will keep this promise to the American people,” Obama said. “If you like your doctor, you will be able to keep your doctor, period. If you like your health care plan, you’ll be able to keep your health care plan, period. No one will take it away, no matter what.”
Spoken with great confidence, Obama’s words were meant to reassure, and it’s possible many Americans believed them. But at the same time, the president and his Democratic allies in Congress built the new health care law on provisions that, when acting together, guarantee that some people — perhaps many people — won’t be able to keep their health care plans.
On the one hand, the new law orders the establishment of health care “exchanges” through which anyone can purchase government-subsidized coverage. On the other hand, the law levies fines on employers who fail to offer coverage to their employees — but sets the fine far below the cost of coverage. In 2010, the average employer paid $4,150 to cover a single employee and $9,773 for family coverage. (Both figures are about double what they were in 2000.) The new law sets fines for employers who don’t cover their workers at $2,000.
So when it takes effect in 2014, the law will give employers a choice: Continue to offer increasingly expensive health coverage, or pay a relatively small fine, save a lot of money, and let employees buy their own subsidized coverage on the exchange. The incentive seems pretty clear.