Book claims Obama misstated mother’s struggle with health care coverage

Holly Bailey
The Ticket

During his 2008 presidential campaign and his subsequent fight to enact health care reform legislation, President Obama frequently told a heart-wrenching story of how problems with the nation's insurance system had touched his own family.

He said his mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, had spent the final months of her life battling with insurance companies who refused to pay for her medical treatments because they claimed her ovarian cancer had been a pre-existing condition.

"She wasn't thinking about coming to terms with her own mortality," Obama said at a rally in September 2007. "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, 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."

But the story, which was the subject of an Obama campaign ad in 2008, is facing critical scrutiny in a new biography of Obama's mother, which reports Dunham actually did have health coverage for most of her bills when she died of cancer in 1995.

In "A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama's Mother," author Janny Scott writes that an employer-sponsored health insurance plan paid for all of Dunham's medical bills, except for her deductible and some "uncovered" medical expenses that added up to "several hundred dollars a month." According to Scott, Dunham hoped to pay for those extra costs through disability coverage, but her insurer at the time, CIGNA, denied the claim, citing her pre-existing condition. Scott's reporting is based on copies of letters between Dunham and CIGNA that she obtained via friends of Obama's mother.

As the New York Times' Kevin Sack writes, the White House says it hasn't reviewed the records that Scott cites in her book, but administration officials aren't disputing the book's claim--though an Obama aide insists his boss didn't get his story wrong.

"The president's mother incurred several hundred dollars in monthly uncovered medical expenses that she was relying on insurance to pay," White House spokesman Nick Papas tells the Times. "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."