November 18, 2013

LAST THURSDAY, D.C. insurance commissioner William P. White posted a statement about what he saw as President Obama’s unnecessary “fix” to the Affordable Care Act. On Friday, he was no longer D.C. insurance commissioner.

“I thought I was doing my job,” Mr. White told us. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) saw things differently.

There are issues here of process and of substance. One can understand why Mr. Gray was angry. His city depends on the federal government. Before one of his appointees takes on the president, the mayor might reasonably ask for a bit more notice. There is also some after-the-fact disagreement about whether Mr. White inaccurately claimed, after posting his critique, that he had gotten permission from the mayor’s staff for his public comment.

On the other hand, firing seems harsh for the offense. Mr. White is well-respected, a three-year veteran of the Gray administration. And — this is where we come to substance — he was correct in his critique.

The flap has its origin in Mr. Obama’s infamous promise that all Americans who wanted to do so could keep their health-care plans, the Affordable Care Act notwithstanding. This promise was incompatible with one of the core aims of the act: to ensure that everyone has insurance that meets minimal standards, including coverage of preventive care and mental health treatment.

When Mr. Obama’s promise was exposed as inaccurate — by cancellation letters to thousands of Americans — he could have explained why he was wrong. Instead, he offered an inelegant fix, under which insurance companies will be permitted to extend inadequate policies for another year. This will turn out either to be cosmetic, because most companies and state insurance commissioners will say no, or it will undermine one of the goals of Obamacare.

Mr. White wasn’t the only insurance chief to point this out, but he was among the first. “The action today undercuts the purpose of the exchanges, including the District’s DC Health Link,” his agency stated, “by creating exceptions that make it more difficult for them to operate.”

The former commissioner insists that he never intended to speak for the mayor. Rather, he was trying to provide a rapid, frank and public response to a major policy announcement directly affecting the market he regulates. It was Mr. White’s judgment as the District’s insurance regulator that the president’s fix posed potential problems for nascent insurance markets. He was right about that. Firing him after he made a reasonable point in a timely manner makes it less likely that insurance commissioners will act independently, and it harms the people’s interest in hearing honest accounts from their government.