Yes, Bill Clinton really did call Obamacare a 'crazy system'

Columnist Michael Hiltzik writes Obamacare apologia for the Los Angeles Times. Generally speaking, he knows the subject matter well enough to turn almost any Obamacare headline into either a positive column about the program or at least a “don’t panic” column about it. But even Hiltzik seems to be struggling this week after Bill Clinton attacked the program as “the craziest thing in the world.”

You can tell what Hiltzik really wanted to do. He wanted to write a column that could sport the headline “No, Bill Clinton didn’t attack Obamacare.” But he either lacked conviction or maybe an editor with a bit more distance from the subject gave it the headline “Bill Clinton was right that Obamacare needs improvement — but we knew that already.” In any case, Hiltzik does his best to claim Clinton wasn’t attacking Obamacare:

I felt obligated to hunt down Clinton’s remarks. Imagine my surprise to discover that he hadn’t called Obamacare “crazy,” but had applied that label to elements of the entire U.S. healthcare system, and that he was speaking up for a reform that supporters of the law have been advocating for years and that his wife actually has proposed. This is what happens when news commentators are let loose on a law they don’t understand. So let’s examine what really happened.

And right away, Hiltzik is wrong. Clinton was clearly talking about Obamacare not the entire U.S. healthcare system. Here’s what Clinton said:

But the people that are getting killed in this deal are small business people and individuals who make just a little too much to get any of these subsidies. Why? Because they’re not organized, they don’t have any bargaining power with insurance companies and they’re getting whacked. So you’ve got this crazy system where all of a sudden, 25 million more people have healthcare and then the people that are out there busting it ― sometimes 60 hours a week ― wind up with their premiums doubled and their coverage cut in half. It’s the craziest thing in the world.

So if the question is “What is the scope of Bill Clinton’s comments?” the answer should be pretty obvious. He’s talking about people who make “too much to get any of these subsidies.” That’s Obamacare. And he’s talking about 25 million people getting healthcare. That’s an exaggeration on his part since even HHS is saying the figure is more like 20 million. In any case, he’s clearly talking about Obamacare not “elements of the entire U.S. healthcare system.”

Hiltzik muddies the waters by claiming that the problem Bill is discussing was no secret and therefore this isn’t anything new. It’s true the problem hasn’t been a secret. What’s new and striking here is having a leading Democrat like Bill Clinton say Obamacare is a mess in language usually reserved to the harshest Republican critics.

Hiltzik spends about 5 paragraphs discussing Obamacare’s subsidy structure and then returns to his claim Bill Clinton wasn’t talking about Obamacare:

Bill Clinton obviously was applying the label of “the craziest thing in the world” not to the Affordable Care Act itself, but to the sharp drop-off in help for middle-income households.

So now Hiltzik has moved from claiming this was about “elements of the entire U.S. healthcare system” to saying it was about elements of Obamacare. But elements of Obamacare, especially significant ones like subsidies, are Obamacare. It’s like an aerospace engineer saying, I’m not attacking this airplane but these wings clearly are a crazy design.

Bill Clinton really did take a shot at Obamacare. That’s news because he didn’t just say the framework needed a slight modification, he said it was flat crazy to force lots of hard-working people to buy expensive insurance with small networks and high deductibles even as others are getting a free, or almost free, ride. And he’s right about that.