The furor over "if you like your plan, you can keep it" touches on a deep fear in American life: That your health-care insurance can be taken from you. That fear is so powerful because it happens so often: Almost everyone in the country can lose their health insurance at any time, for all kinds of reasons — and every year, millions do.
If you're one of the 149 million people who get health insurance through your employer, you can lose your plan if you get fired, or if the H.R. department decides to change plans, or if you have to move to a branch in another state.
If you're one of the 51 million people who get Medicaid, you could lose your plan because your income rises and you're no longer eligible or because your state cut its Medicaid budget and made you ineligible. You could lose it because you moved from Minnesota, where childless adults making less than 75 percent of the poverty line are eligible, to Texas, where there's no coverage for childless adults.
If you're one of the 15 million Americans who buys insurance on the individual market, you could lose your plan because your insurer decides to stop offering it or decides to jack up the price by 35 percent. And that's assuming you're one of the lucky people who weren't denied coverage based on preexisting conditions in the first place.
Then, of course, there are the 50 million people who don't have a plan in the first place. The vast majority of them desperately want health-care coverage. But it turns out that just because you want a plan doesn't mean you can get one.
Virtually the only people whose health coverage is reasonably safe are those on fee-for-service Medicare and some forms of veterans insurance. And even there, enrollees are only safe until the day policymakers decide to change premiums or benefit packages.
President Obama's critics are right: Obamacare doesn't guarantee that everyone who likes their health insurance can keep it. In some cases, Obamacare is the reason people will lose health insurance they liked.
What Obamacare comes pretty close to guaranteeing, though, is that everyone who needs health insurance, or who wants health insurance, can get it.
It guarantees that if you lose the plan you liked — perhaps because you were fired from your job, or because you left your job to start a new business, or because your income made you ineligible for Medicaid — you'll have a choice of new plans you can purchase, you'll know that no insurer can turn you away, and you'll be able to get financial help if you need it. In states that accept the Medicaid expansion, it guarantees that anyone who makes less than 133 percent of poverty can get fully subsidized insurance.
Health insurance isn't such a fraught topic in countries such as Canada and France because people don't live in constant fear of losing their ability to get routine medical care. A decade from now, that will be true in the U.S., too. But it's not true yet, and paradoxically, that's one reason health reform is so difficult. The status quo has left people rightly fearful, and when people are afraid, change is even scarier.