Heather Michon

Heather Michon
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Virginia,
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June 25
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Editor’s Pick
JULY 15, 2011 12:47PM

Barack Obama & The Case of the Insurance Claim

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ann-dunham-obama-mom1 Throughout the 2008 presidential campaign and again during the bruising battle for health insurance reform, one of Barack Obama’s oft-told anecdotes was of his dying mother’s struggle with insurance in the final months of her life.

It was a story that came up in almost every speech and interview that touched on health care over the years. “I remember in the last month of her life, she wasn't thinking about how to get well, she wasn't thinking about   coming to terms with her own mortality, she was thinking about whether or not insurance was going to cover the medical bills and whether our family would be bankrupt as a consequence," he said in a 2007 interview.  ”My mother, when she got sick with ovarian cancer, she had just gotten a new job, and the insurance company was saying, ‘Well, maybe this is a pre-existing condition, so maybe we don't have to pay your medical bills,’” he told a Pennsylvania crowd in 2008. “So I know what it's like to see a loved one suffer not just because they're sick, but because of a broken health care system. This is personal for me.” He told the American Medical Association in 2009 that he remembered “watching . . . as she fought cancer in her final days, spending time worrying whether her insurer would claim her illness was a pre-existing condition.”  

The portrait of President Obama as a regular guy, forced like so many regular Americans to stand helplessly by while a suffering loved one uses their ebbing strength to fight with heartless, profit-obsessed medical insurance companies was immensely appealing, particularly to reporters. It was just one of those stories that was “as journalists like to say, 'too good to check,'” says The Atlantic’s Megan McArdle.

But, recently, someone checked. During the course of her research for A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama's Mother, New York Times political reporter Janny Scott found that President Obama’s story was sort of true, if you stood in at a certain angle and squinted a little.

When Ann Dunham was diagnosed with uterine and ovarian cancer in January 1995, her medical insurance carrier covered her treatment without argument, even covering her medical travel expenses from Indonesia to Hawaii, and later from Hawaii to New York, where she sought treatment at Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. She was left to pay the deductibles and those items not covered by her policy, totalling a few hundred dollars a month in out-of-pocket expense.

To defray the cost, Dunham put in a claim with for a disability insurance policy she had through her employers. Correspondence given to Scott by friends of Dunham show that it was her disability carrier, Cigna, that denied the claim on the basis of a pre-existing condition, after reviewers found a note in an old medical file that suggested she might have uterine cancer. Dunham argued that testing at the time had found no sign of the disease. She later requested a review, directing them to her “son and attorney, Barack Obama,” but it’s not clear if it was completed before her death in November 1995 at the age of 52.

After repeated request, the New York Times this week finally got the White House to make a statement on the story. “We have not reviewed the letters or other material on which the author bases her account,” said spokesperson Nicholas Papas. “The president has told this story based on his recollection of events that took place more than 15 years ago.” The fundamentals of the President’s account, Papas went on to say, were accurate. The subtext was clear: the President never said it was a medical insurance dispute, so if people chose to interpret it that way, it's hardly his fault. 

The RedState/TownHall crowd is feasting on this Obama “lie.” And why wouldn’t they? If Bill Clinton was an all-you-can-eat buffet of half-truths and scandals, Saint Barack of Chicago has been nothing but thin gruel all the way. While it might be fun to mock Michelle Obama’s recent 1,700-calorie lunch, it’s going to take more than Shake-Shack-gate to get discouraged Republicans to the polls in 2012. With no big scandal on the horizon, all they can hope for is a drip-drip-drip of negative stories that erode the Obama mystique among conservative-leaning independents.

What’s interesting is not that this any kind of actual news—the President didn’t so much lie as conveniently shade a personal anecdote for maximum impact and, let’s face it, no matter how potent the pathos of the Insurance Claim, we still ended up with a health care deal that kept a fundamentally flawed insurance system fundamentally intact—but that the mainstream press has been devoting so much time to it. From the New York Times, it spread to CBS, ABC, the Huffington Post, The Atlantic, USA Today, the Washington Post…none of them bastions of anti-Obama sentiment.

It’s the clearest sign yet that coverage of the 2012 presidential race is going to be an entirely different critter than 2008. Back then, reporting on President Obama’s personal history was soft-focus Sunday feature fare; there was no particularly interest in digging below the surface to check the veracity of any given personal anecdote. With Obama appearing less and less a transformational leader and more and more a standard-issue politician, he’s inevitably going to face a higher level of scrutiny. The Era of Too Good To Check has come to an end.  

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Photo courtesy Obama.net

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I wouldn't call that a lie, but misleading, sort of, although, the effect was similar, namely to deny someone money they clearly needed, although, companies have to draw the line somewhere too. He did get a relatively easy treatment of his personal life, but, he still doesn't seem to have had that much of one to draw conclusions about, when all is said and done.
I'm sure it was still difficult for her financially. Cigna is a health care company too, even though they handled her disability insurance.
Thanks to the way he wants to change health care, my 9yr old son isn't eligible for a yearly "wellness physical"! But my husband and I are?????
Thanks to the way he wants to change health care, my 9yr old son isn't eligible for a yearly "wellness physical"! But my husband and I are?????
I confess to being a T-partier who voted for Obama in 2008. It was time we had a "Black" president, and how much worse could he be than John McCain?

I stand corrected. He is not so much "Black" as a muddled and muddy "Grey" of unknown education, senate record, law review articles, etc.
Even his recently "Found" "long form" birth certificate doesn't so much end the controversy over "whether it's real" as put the lie to his lengthy contention that the computer generated "short form" was "all there is". I'm looking forward to Cain or West becoming the first REAL Black President.
Whatever effect mild truth bending might have had in presenting Obama as suffering out of hard hearted insurance companies is rather negligible when the real record of Obama's enthusiasm for retaining and extending the G.W.Bush policies of maintaining Gitmo, extending the participation in useless wars, refusing to examine the constitutional violations of the previous regime, adopting executive powers denied under the constitution, favoring the detrimental policies of the financial sector over the prosecution of financial scamming of the public and not coming down hard on the people responsible for the major economic disasters of the country. Getting excited over what happened to his mother hardly seems very important.
Whatever happened to "If your mother says she loves you, check it out?"
Well-written, and deserving of the editor's pick. Still -- addressing your larger point, considering the G.O.P. has portrayed Obama as an empty suit, what does that say about the current Republican choices and the absence of a serious alternative? People will vote for an even emptier suit, if the Republicans can find one to agree on by 2012. [R]
Shades of gray. Must people be like tapes and recall every word uttered and have grasp of every word stated by BIG CORPORATIONS? Is it enough that her death was fast and furious and he is probably stricken even today by the loss of his mother? What is the purpose of this piece? Elevate your self.

"With Obama appearing less and less a transformational leader and more and more a standard-issue politician, he’s inevitably going to face a higher level of scrutiny. The Era of Too Good To Check has come to an end."

Only cornbread is good scattered about. Would your life be "good and delicious" to the last bite if the same IF YOU WERE TALKING ABOUT THE DEATH OF YOUR MOTHER, too?

Why do politician have to fill higher standards than common man and common woman?

Really. You have such eloquence and you chose this topic to preen on? The harder story would of been insurance reform.

Go to a Hospice House and interview a dying woman and her family and then 12 years later interview them again. Please.

Shabby topic. I hate high minded that is callous.

But, I like how you write. Really do.

I just expect with such a fine mind you could of reshaped this piece and been judicious and humane.
"Obama lies", I'd prophesy, will be a catch phrase for years to come. Not quite lies, not quite truth...for some reason not even quite deception. Social care in medicine?? Didn't like the idea the first time around. I'd like it if it would work in the USA... don't like it if it wouldn't.
"With no big scandal on the horizon..." Well, what about "Fast and Furious?" When the upper echelon of the administration decides to supply Mexican drug gangs with thousands of military weapons and lies to congress about it, that's a pretty big scandal! It's a big news story, too, not that Salon would recognize it. By the way, Obama's
daily stream of lies is enabled by hack propagandists who lie to themselves and their readers. I swear, the contortions you people go through.
Unfortunately, the MSM refused to vet Obama and these are the results; a failure in every single thing he's done as president...lying is still lying no matter how much fudging goes on...why haven't the public been allowed to see any of his documentation...why did he spend almost $2 million to hide everything...hiding, lying, dissembling; it's all the same thing and liberals making excuses has a consequence...it only places them in the category of children..defending the man-child you so trusted to make things right...well, hello libs...this, Barack Hussein Obama is doing exactly what you wanted...why aren't you celebrating???You should be; he's done everything liberals/progressives have wanted for almost a hundred years...what statists want...destroying American and all individual liberty & freedom...you get what you vote for and BHO is everything you wanted...but 80% of American doesn't want...k
Unfortunately, the MSM refused to vet Obama and these are the results; a failure in every single thing he's done as president...lying is still lying no matter how much fudging goes on...why haven't the public been allowed to see any of his documentation...why did he spend almost $2 million to hide everything...hiding, lying, dissembling; it's all the same thing and liberals making excuses has a consequence...it only places them in the category of children..defending the man-child you so trusted to make things right...well, hello libs...this, Barack Hussein Obama is doing exactly what you wanted...why aren't you celebrating???You should be; he's done everything liberals/progressives have wanted for almost a hundred years...what statists want...destroying American and all individual liberty & freedom...you get what you vote for and BHO is everything you wanted...but 80% of American doesn't want...k
Never let the truth get in the way of a good story!

And never let strict adherence to the truth get in the way of making a point that ought definitely to be made.

Anyone making a big thing about this is acknowledging the weakness of the case against Obama. Bring it on. Bring the Birth Certificate and Citizenship things on. The more they bring 'em on...the more they are acknowledging their weakness.
Actually, the story was checked at the time. It's just that few were interested in reporting the findings as was the case with much about candidate Obama. He was an unknown quantity and the media intended to keep it that way instead preferring to create a myth. Well done.
A lie is a statement meant to deceive. I'll give you 57 states and laugh about it and throw it back at you when someone from the GOP says something you just have to point out, but this he repeated over and over with the intent to deceive.
Two things here: Obama will say or do anything to get re-elected; he is a politician like the rest of them.
Number 2: I see no evidence that "discouraged Republicans" are hanging back as 2012 approaches. I dare say that they are disgusted more than discouraged, and I wouldn't be surprised if many of them are already waiting in line (with their high-calorie snacks and non-designer sleeping bags) until the polls open.
I love your last paragraph. Pres. Obama has been found to lie almost any time a journalist has taken more than 5 minutes to scratch the surface of his anecdotes, educational background, family stories, memoirs. He lies because he believes that the end justifies the means. He wants nationalized healthcare therefore he should be able to lie 1000 times that his mother's last days were spent wrangling with her Insurance company when the exact opposite is true. She was fully covered.

He needed 1 billion dollars to get elected because nobody knew who he was. Now he needs 1 billion to get elected because of his grossly failed policies, his un-transparent everything, his lack of experience in anything. Those who fell for him the first time should be ashamed of themselves.
This isn't actually Hillary claiming to have landed on a battlefield in Bosnia. What he said on the campaign trail was pretty much what happened. What he left out was a lot of the detail. If you are trying to condense an anecdote into a soundbite, that's what happens. Most people when there's an issue with their insurance company and a life-threatening health issue, aren't thinking of whether it's the primary or the secondary, they are thinking they are dying and getting screwed at the same time. Obama's point was that he's been touched by the bs that is our whacky system, and that's true. His mother was in a position of fighting with an insurance while she was dying. He gets it.
Why he didn't push for single payer is another matter.
As someone who once worked for a disability insurer, this is splitting hairs. We looked at medical records, had a staff of doctors and nurses who reviewed claims, and made benefits decisions based on the definition of disability in the insurance policy.
This is a great story weather or not its true. i love readying about all of this kind of stuff. keep up the good work.
This is a great story weather or not its true. i love readying about all of this kind of stuff. keep up the good work. www.dor2dor.com