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Sweet: Obama tries to empathize over health insurance cancellations, but is that the best he’s got?

President Barack Obam |  Charles Dharapak~AP

President Barack Obama | Charles Dharapak~AP

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Updated: December 9, 2013 11:08AM

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama said Thursday he was sorry some people are losing their health insurance plans under his Obamacare law despite his oft-repeated, now-discredited promise “if you like your insurance plan, you will keep it.”

Obama made the admission — seemed to me with some prodding — in an interview with NBC’s Chuck Todd, coming as more and more stories emerge of individuals getting their policies canceled as a consequence of provisions in his signature health care law.

“Even though it’s a small percentage of folks who may be disadvantaged, you know, it means a lot to them,” Obama told Todd.

“And it’s scary to them. And I am sorry that they — you know, are finding themselves in this situation, based on assurances they got from me. We’ve got to work hard to make sure that — they know — we hear ’em and that we’re going to do everything we can — to deal with folks who find themselves — in a tough position as a consequence of this.”

Meanwhile, the website selling health insurance under Obamacare in Illinois and other states — — is still not fully functional and never has been since the Oct. 1 launch.

A remarkable feature of Todd’s interview with Obama — whose hair is noticeably grayer — is the president’s inability to sincerely express empathy. I know he tried, but is that the best he’s got? Given that people are freaking out when they get a notice their policies are being dropped — a horrible, frustrating life experience.

“But in this transition, you know, there are going to be folks who get a cancellation letter, especially when a website’s not working. They’re looking and saying, ‘What am I going to do now?’ And — you know, we have to make sure that they — are not feeling as if they’ve been betrayed by an effort that —­ is designed to help them,” Obama said.

One of the reasons former President Bill Clinton is a far more effective communicator than Obama when it comes to discussing complicated things is that Clinton has a gift for making the complex simple. And, as he famously said in 1992 — in another situation — “I feel your pain.”

Obama said variations of the “if you like your plan, you can keep it,” at least 34 times “in some form,” according to Politifact. “But that is literally not true for hundreds of thousands and likely millions of people,” Politifact concluded.

“I mean, we’re talking about 5 percent of the population,” Obama told Todd.

“But — but that’s — a significant number of people. Even though a whole lot of them are going to be better off. There’s going to be a segment who — you know, I’ve ultimately got to make sure that — you know, I’m speaking to their needs and their concerns. And, you know — I take that very seriously, because I want everybody out there to know that, you know, my entire intention here is to make sure that — people have the security of affordable health care,” he said.

The 5 percent reference is about folks who bought individual policies after the law became effective in 2010. Under the new law kicking in now, if those policies don’t pass federal muster, insurance companies must stopping selling them.

What the administration never appreciated was that people get new plans all the time — but they hardly noticed because it seemed more like an automatic renewal, albeit often with higher costs. A cancellation letter gets your attention.

The Obama team has been relying on legalistic technicalities in keeping the misleading language in his remarks.

Obama kept using that 5 percent figure in his interview with Todd in an attempt to put the situation in perspective. But if you are one of the 5 percent and are angry and feel duped — I don’t blame you. You are entitled to your story.

Democratic lawmakers who have been defending Obamacare for years are fuming at the botched and now have to deal with the uproar over the cancellations.

Obama and Vice President Joe Biden met Wednesday at the White House for 90 minutes with the Democratic senators up in 2014 — including Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. — to address their concerns.

The Senate Democrats are Obama’s front line in what is now a more intense House and Senate GOP push to delay the mandate for everyone to buy insurance or pay a penalty. There are breaks in the Democratic ranks. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., on Thursday introduced a bill with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va, to delay the mandate a year.

The transition to a better health insurance system was never going to be easy. Health insurance is confusing. People in this new era have to take on more responsibility. As Obama noted — in the million words it takes him to make a point — folks whose policies have been canceled may find a better deal after they shop around in the new health marketplaces. That is, once gets fixed.


Twitter: @lynnsweet

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