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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Obama’s Untrue Anecdote

President Obama's much-told story about his mother's fight to get cancer coverage was untrue, according to a recently published book. And the White House isn't disputing the author's account.

The New York Times reports that Janny Scott, in her biography, “A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother,” writes that Stanley Ann Dunham's health insurance provider did, in fact, cover most of the medical expenses related to her uterine and ovarian cancer.

New York Times, July 13: In her book, published in May by Riverhead Books, Ms. Scott writes that Mr. Obama's mother, Ann Dunham, had an employer-provided health insurance policy that paid her hospital bills directly, leaving her "to pay only the deductible and any uncovered expenses, which, she said, came to several hundred dollars a month."

Obama, during the 2008 presidential campaign and the many months before he signed the health care law last year, often spoke of his mother's complications as a reason to overhaul the nation's health care system, saying that she nearly was denied health insurance coverage due to the fact that her illness was considered a preexisting condition. For example, when Obama was asked at an AARP tele-town hall two years ago if insurers would be required to cover people with preexisting conditions under his health care proposal, he replied:

Obama, July 28, 2009: The answer is yes. And so let me talk just a little bit about the kind of insurance reform that we're proposing as part of the broader reform package.

Number one, if you've got a preexisting condition, insurance companies will still have to insure you. This is something very personal for me. My mother, when she contracted cancer, the insurance companies started suggesting that, well, maybe this was a preexisting condition; maybe you could have diagnosed it before you actually purchased your insurance. Ultimately, they gave in, but she had to spend weeks fighting with insurance companies while she's in the hospital bed, writing letters back and forth just to get coverage for insurance that she had already paid premiums on. And that happens all across the country. We are going to put a stop to that. That's point number one.

But according to the Times, Scott writes that Dunham's dispute wasn't over health insurance coverage at all, but rather over a disability insurance policy. Such disability policies aren't covered by the new health care law for which Obama was arguing.

New York Times, July 13: The Cigna disability policy, according to Ms. Scott, allowed the company to deny a claim if a patient had seen a doctor about the condition that caused the disability in the three months before employment. During that period, Ms. Dunham visited a New York gynecologist. When Cigna obtained the doctor’s notes, it learned that she had formed a working hypothesis that Ms. Dunham might have uterine cancer, Ms. Scott wrote.

The doctor ordered up a series of tests, and Ms. Dunham submitted to most of them. “None of these tests indicated that I had cancer,” Ms. Dunham wrote to Cigna, according to the book.

After several months, Cigna denied the claim.

Scott, who calls Obama's version of what happened "abbreviated" in her book, told the paper that she found no evidence that Dunham encountered similar challenges from Dunham's actual health insurance provider.

Nicholas Papas, a White House spokesman, did not challenge Scott's account, which was based on actual letters Dunham had written to CIGNA, according to the Times. “We have not reviewed the letters or other material on which the author bases her account,” he told the paper. “The president has told this story based on his recollection of events that took place more than 15 years ago.”

— D'Angelo Gore