Vice President Joe Biden, first lady Michelle Obama and President Barack Obama all told a story during the Democratic National Convention about battles the president’s mother waged with health care companies as she fought a terminal illness in 1995. But the version of events presented Thursday night differs dramatically from others, including those of at least two biographers and Obama’s own previous account.
“Barack had to sit at the end of his mom’s hospital bed and watch her fight cancer and insurance companies at the same time,” Biden said.
The first lady added to the story, observing from the podium that “watching your mother die of something that could have been prevented — that’s a tough thing to deal with.”
“When my mother got cancer,” the president echoed during a video played inside the Time Warner Cable Arena before his entrance, “she wasn’t a wealthy woman and it pretty much drained all her resources.”
But in 2004, the president told the Chicago Sun-Times that he wasn’t present during his mother’s final days at all.
“The biggest mistake I made was not being at my mother’s bedside when she died,” he said then. “She was in Hawaii in a hospital, and we didn’t know how fast it was going to take, and I didn’t get there in time.”
“He was into his Chicago phase, reshaping himself for his political future, but now was drawn back to Hawaii to say goodbye to his mother,” Maraniss reported. “Too late, as it turned out. She died on Nov. 7, 1995, before he could get there.”
The story Democratic convention-goers heard in Charlotte, N.C., however, was not intended as a tragic remembrance, but to convey the tragedy of suffering in a hospital without health insurance.
This narrative, too, is contradicted by history: Stanley Ann Dunham, the president’s late mother, did have health insurance to cover her uterine and ovarian cancer, through her job with Development Alternatives Inc. of Bethesda, Md.
“Ann’s compensation for her job in Jakarta had included health insurance, which covered most of the costs of her medical treatment,” according to Dunham’s biographer, New York Times journalist Janny Scott.
“Once she was back in Hawaii, the hospital billed her insurance company directly, leaving Ann to pay only the deductible and any uncovered expenses, which she said, came to several hundred dollars a month.”
Scott also wrote that Dunham’s compensation package for her work in Indonesia included $82,500 — about $132,000 in today’s dollars — plus a housing allowance and a car, making that amount well within her means.
The story told from the podium Thursday in Charlotte has been a persistent refrain from Obama and his surrogates since his presidential candidacy began in 2007. His campaign produced an ad that year for the Iowa caucuses in which Obama claimed his mother was “more worried about paying her medical bills than getting well.”
“She wasn’t thinking about coming to terms with her own mortality,” he told an audience in Santa Barbara, Calif., during a 2007 campaign swing. “She had been diagnosed just as she was transitioning between jobs. And she wasn’t sure whether insurance was going to cover the medical expenses because they might consider this a pre-existing condition.”
“I remember just being heartbroken,” the future president said then, “seeing her struggle through the paperwork and the medical bills and the insurance forms. So I have seen what it’s like when somebody you love is suffering because of a broken health care system. And it’s wrong. It’s not who we are as a people.”
During a presidential debate with Arizona Sen. John McCain, Obama again linked the story of his mother’s final days with his push for health care reform.
“For my mother to die of cancer at the age of 53,” he argued, “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.”
But Scott, the biographer, found that it never happened.
Writing for The Washington Post’s “The Fact Checker” blog in March 2012, Glenn Kessler wrote that “Scott reviewed letters from Dunham to the CIGNA insurance company, and revealed the dispute was over disability coverage, not health insurance coverage.”
Obama’s 2007-2008 story hasn’t changed significantly during the 2012 campaign. In “The Road We’ve Traveled,” a 2012 documentary produced for the Obama campaign, narrator Tom Hanks says Obama “knew from experience the cost of waiting” for health care reform.
“When my mom got cancer,” the president says on-screen, “she wasn’t a wealthy woman, and it pretty much drained all her resources.”
The first lady adds some details. “She developed ovarian cancer, never really had good, consistent insurance,” she says in the film. “That’s a tough thing to deal with, watching your mother die of something that could have been prevented. I don’t think he wants to see anyone go through that.”
Hanks closes the loop on the political messaging, telling film-goers that Obama “remembered the millions of families like of his who feel the pressure of rising costs and the fear of being denied or dropped from coverage.”