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PARKER: A story not quite right

Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker

WASHINGTON — Most would agree that one would have to stoop pretty low to question the story of a man's mother's death.

But what if that deathbed story were the locus of a sweeping policy that encompassed a huge slice of a nation's economy?

And what if the individual who told the story were the president of the world's most powerful nation?

On the same day that President Obama peevishly walked out of debt-ceiling negotiations with congressional leaders, The New York Times reported that the White House had declined to challenge an account in a new book about Obama's most compelling argument for health care reform -- the tale of his mother Ann Dunham's final days fighting with insurance companies about coverage for her cancer treatment.

No one who followed the 2008 presidential race could have missed the story, which Obama told more than once, of Dunham's death from uterine and ovarian cancer at age 52. As told by Obama, his mother was fighting until her last breath with an uncaring insurance company about payments for her treatment. The company wouldn't pay, Obama reported, because his mother's cancer was considered a pre-existing condition. Eliminating pre-existing conditions as an obstacle to insurance coverage was a central tenet of health care reform and the Affordable Care Act that has resulted.

"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," Obama told a sympathetic nation.

The story touched hearts and swayed judgments. How awful. How could a compassionate country tolerate such cruelty? Life is a pre-existing condition, after all. And besides, one wouldn't dare challenge a man's memory of his mamma. We all have a mom and it's staggering to consider having to watch her suffer through the indignity of death and the indifference of faceless corporations. Meanwhile, of all the things that are off-limits to scrutiny or skepticism, Cancer and Mother top the list. Combine the two in a personal story and you are untouchable.

Thus, the story of Obama, Ann Dunham and corporate America's inhumanity toward pre-existing conditions became an inviolate holy trinity of immense political power.

If only it had been true.

It is too much to say that Obama told an intentionally tall tale to mislead the public. But it is also incorrect to say that he told a true story. According to Janny Scott, a New York Times writer and author of the book "A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama's Mother," Dunham's cancer treatments were covered by her employer's insurance policy. She was denied disability insurance, which would have helped Dunham pay her deductible or unreimbursed medical costs. These apparently ran into the hundreds per month.

A distinction without a difference? This is a question for Americans to decide. Yes, it's true that Dunham was denied disability and she hired her son, whom she identified as her lawyer, to pursue legal recourse. But it is false that she was denied coverage of her treatment, as Obama clearly said.

On Wednesday, the White House did not dispute Scott's rendering of events, which she gleaned from correspondence between Dunham and Cigna, the company that held Dunham's disability insurance policy. Presidential spokesman Nicholas Papas said, "The president has told this story based on his recollection of events that took place more than 15 years ago."

We can all understand memories dimmed by the passage of time, though some memories demand greater accountability. Obama might have checked his facts more carefully. Not only did he represent his mother's interests at the time and, presumably, have legal notes and correspondence in his own files, but he knew he would use the anecdote to make his argument for health care reform. Surely he might have expected that someone eventually would fact-check his account.

Papas maintains that the president's story, if not exactly as Americans may have understood it, still stands as commentary on "the impact of pre-existing condition limits on insurance protection from health care costs." This would be a reasonable argument except that disability insurance, which is usually intended to cover wages lost to illness and not treatment, was never part of the debate in the health care reform act.

The president likely will be forgiven this exaggeration in the service of a greater truth. But it was never, in fact, quite true.

Kathleen Parker's email address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.