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Retell Politics: Story About Obama's Mother Gets Another Look

Sep 7, 2012
Originally published on September 7, 2012 7:50 am

Were last night's convention references to Barack Obama's mother and her struggles with an insurance company before her death a powerful argument for health care reform? Or were they a well-worn misrepresentation of history?

The answer appears to be in the wording.

The story came up twice — in Vice President Joe Biden's speech and in a seven-minute video preceding President Obama's address. And in both cases, the descriptions of the events of 17 years ago seem to have been crafted to preserve the anecdote's proven political power while avoiding the scrutiny of media fact-checkers who'd previously questioned the president's past tellings.

So let's look carefully at exactly what was said in Charlotte and what we know about the months leading up to S. Ann Dunham's death in November 1995.


Here's how Biden told the story in his speech:

"Barack as a young man had to sit at the end of his mother's hospital bed and watch her fight with her insurance company at the very same time she was fighting for her life."

And then, in the Obama video, the president and the first lady briefly alluded to the same incident in separate back-to-back interview clips.

President Obama: "When my mom got cancer, she wasn't a wealthy woman and it pretty much drained all of her resources."

Michelle Obama: "Watching your mother die of something that could have been prevented — that's a tough thing to deal with."


The issue for Dunham wasn't actually her health coverage; she had that. It was a rejected claim on her disability insurance.

A 2011 biography of Obama's mother by New York Times journalist Janny Scott found that Dunham's health insurance plan "covered most of the costs of her medical treatment" for uterine and ovarian cancer.

In A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama's Mother, Scott wrote that Dunham pursued a disability claim for help covering "several hundred dollars a month" in deductibles and other uncovered medical expenses. Scott reviewed the correspondence between Dunham and her insurer. In the end, the insurer rejected Dunham's claim because the disability policy "contained a clause allowing the company to deny any claim related to a pre-existing medical condition," Scott wrote.


In their convention remarks, the Obamas and Biden were careful to avoid saying Dunham's insurance company denied her coverage or treatment. However, Obama has not always been so careful about that point.

As Scott wrote in her biography:

"Years later, during the presidential campaign and even after his election, Obama would allude to his mother's experience, albeit in abbreviated form, when making the case for health care reform. Though he often suggested that she was denied health coverage because of a pre-existing condition, it appears from her correspondence that she was only denied disability coverage."

One example was Obama's reference to his mother's illness in his Oct. 7, 2008, debate appearance with Republican rival John McCain in Nashville, Tenn.:

"In a country as wealthy as ours, for us to have people who are going bankrupt because they can't pay their medical bills — for my mother to die of cancer at the age of 53 and have to spend the last months of her life in the hospital room arguing with insurance companies because they're saying that this may be a pre-existing condition and they don't have to pay her treatment, there's something fundamentally wrong about that."

As PolitiFact noted, Obama often used similar language to describe his mother's situation during the long debate leading up to passage of the 2010 Affordable Care Act. PolitiFact singled out this August 2009 statement during a town hall meeting in Portsmouth, N.H., as an example:

"I will never forget my own mother, as she fought cancer in her final months, having to worry about whether her insurance would refuse to pay for her treatment. And by the way, this was because the insurance company was arguing that somehow she should have known that she had cancer when she took her new job, even though it hadn't been diagnosed yet."

Based on the reporting by Dunham's biographer, PolitiFact rated that statement and ones like it "barely true" on its Truth-O-Meter scale (a rating the fact-checking website later revised to "mostly false" when it revamped its labeling). Obama's mother, the site said, "was fighting for insurance payments as she was dying, but for disability insurance, not health insurance, as her son said he remembered."

A New York Times story about the biography last year also said Obama's statements "left the clear impression that his mother's fight was over health benefits for medical expenses."

White House spokesman Nicholas Papas was unapologetic, standing by the past statements without challenging Scott's reporting: "We have not reviewed the letters or other material on which the author bases her account," Papas told the Times. "The president has told this story based on his recollection of events that took place more than 15 years ago."

The spokesman added:

"As Ms. Scott's account makes clear, the president's mother incurred several hundred dollars in monthly uncovered medical expenses that she was relying on insurance to pay. ... She first could not get a response from the insurance company, then was refused coverage. This personal history of the president's speaks powerfully to the impact of pre-existing condition limits on insurance protection from health care costs."


In Thursday's statements, the Obamas and Biden spoke about how the president had watched Dunham "fight with her insurance company," only to die after an illness "that could have been prevented." They avoided using variations of language the president had used in the past about insurers "refusing to pay for her treatment" because of a pre-existing condition. But they did not specify that the insurance issue was her disability claim, not her health coverage, as the story still suggests to many listeners.

We'll post updates here if any other major-media fact-checking watchdogs who barked about this issue in the past have more to add now. But in the partisan corners of the Twittersphere, judgments about yesterday's remarks were as swift and polarized as ever.

Obama's critics, such as radio host Dana Loesch (@DLoesch) and commentator/blogger Michelle Malkin (@michellemalkin), instantly blasted the Obamas and Biden for repeating a "lie" and a "debunked story of Obama's mother's insurance 'fight.' " But in a nearly simultaneous tweet, another critic — Jonathan S. Tobin (@TobinCommentary), online editor and blogger for Commentary magazine — noted the subtle shift in the wording:

10:20 p.m. ET: "Quotes from Obama & Michelle in film allude to lie about mother's insurance without quite repeating it."

In today's political environment, that almost reads like praise. But not quite.

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