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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Is Romney to Blame for Cancer Death?

A grieving widower in a new pro-Obama TV spot says his wife contracted cancer and died “a short time after” Mitt Romney closed the steel plant that employed him and left “my family” without health coverage. That’s not quite so.

We find this ad from Priorities USA Action to be misleading on several counts.

  • Steelworker Joe Soptic’s wife, Ranae, died in 2006 — five years after the plant closed.
  • She didn’t lose coverage when the plant closed. Mr. Soptic told CNN that she lost her own employer-sponsored coverage a year or two later. She had no coverage after that.
  • And as we’ve reported before, when the plant closed Romney was running the 2002 Winter Olympics.

It’s fair to argue that Romney bears some responsibility for the plant’s closing — Bain Capital bought it and loaded it with debt while he was in charge of Bain. But the degree of responsibility is a matter of opinion and debate.

It’s also fair to argue that Mrs. Soptic might have lived longer if she had health coverage. Those who lack it tend to seek treatment later, become sicker, and die earlier than those who have coverage.

We’ll also note that what Romney supporters object to most strenuously about this ad is opinion, not fact. That is Soptic’s apparently heartfelt assertion that “I do not think Mitt Romney is concerned” about what “he’s done.”

We can’t speak to the state of Romney’s personal compassion. Opinions will differ on that. But it strains the facts to the breaking point to imply that this tragic death is Romney’s doing.

This isn’t Soptic’s first appearance in an ad attacking Romney. We wrote about an Obama campaign ad back in May that also featured Soptic. This time around, Soptic goes beyond blaming Romney and Bain for the demise of his job and adds the heartbreaking story of his wife’s death.

Here’s what Soptic says:

Joe Soptic in Priorities USA ad: I don’t think Mitt Romney understands what he’s done to people’s lives by closing the plant. I don’t think he realizes that people’s lives completely changed.

When Mitt Romney and Bain closed the plant, I lost my health care, and my family lost their health care. And a short time after that my wife became ill.

I don’t know how long she was sick, and I think maybe she didn’t say anything because she knew that we couldn’t afford the insurance. And then one day she became ill and I took her up to the Jackson County Hospital and admitted her for pneumonia. And that’s when they found the cancer, and by then it was stage four. It was, there was nothing they could do for her.

And she passed away in 22 days.

I do not think Mitt Romney realizes what he’s done to anyone, and furthermore I do not think Mitt Romney is concerned.

Steel Plant Closing

We first looked into Romney and Bain’s involvement with GS Industries when the company was used in an Obama attack ad in May. We found that assigning blame for the downfall of the company was a tough call.

With Romney at the helm, Bain Capital invested in the small Kansas City steel mill called GST Steel Co. in 1993. It was a company that traced its roots to 1888 but had fallen on hard times. According to the Kansas City Star, the company’s ranks had dropped from 4,500 employees in 1970 to just 1,500 employees by 1983.

In addition, the company was beset by aging equipment and faced stiff competition in a specialized market, according to a lengthy Reuters report. Nonetheless, Bain saw potential in the company and, Reuters reported, invested $8 million in it. That initial investment was quickly recouped when, in 1994, the company issued $125 million in bonds and paid out $65 million in dividends — $36.1 million of which went to Bain, according to Reuters. The following year, Bain merged the company with another in Georgetown, S.C., renaming the company GS Industries and issuing another $125 million in bonds.

Bain also reinvested an additional $16.5 million in the company, evidence that Bain intended to keep the firm going. Nevertheless, six years later, the company declared bankruptcy and eliminated 750 jobs — including Soptic’s, the man featured in the Priorities USA Action ad.

The company also reneged on pension and other benefits it had agreed to in 1997. The U.S. Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. later determined the company had severely underfunded its pension, and the federal agency covered the cost of basic pension payments.

Romney has tried to distance himself from the problems at GS Industries.

“I take personal responsibility for making the investment,” Romney told the Boston Globe in 2002. “But I didn’t manage these companies. Our philosophy at Bain Capital was to support management teams in companies where we saw potential for growth, or in companies that were in financial distress that we thought we might be able to save.”

As we have written repeatedly in the past, Romney left day-to-day operations at Bain Capital in early 1999 to head up the Salt Lake City Organizing Committee, and we have criticized the Obama campaign for blaming Romney for the offshoring of jobs by Bain-controlled companies after that time. But this case is a little different. Although the steel company declared bankruptcy in 2001, the debt was incurred at GS Industries under Romney’s leadership.

Was it the debt load that doomed the company? Some analysts cited by Reuters said it certainly didn’t help. Others blamed the union or competition from Asia. In a 1999 filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the company stated, “Distressed economic conditions in other countries, particularly Asia, have resulted in record levels of imported steel products into the domestic market causing dramatic declines in selling prices industry-wide.”

It was a very bad time in general for the steel industry in the United States. A 2003 report from the U.S. International Trade Commission found that between 1999 and 2003, “31 steel companies producing products subject to the safeguard measures [including tariffs on foreign imports] have filed for bankruptcy protection.”

In short, whether Romney or Bain is responsible for the demise of the company is a matter for legitimate debate.

Link to Woman’s Death?

More tenuous, however, are Soptic’s attempts to link Romney to his wife’s death from cancer. In the ad, Soptic says that when he lost his job at GS Industries, “my family lost their health care” and that “a short time after that my wife became ill.”

Soptic says he doesn’t know how long she was sick. And, he says: “I think maybe she didn’t say anything because she knew that we couldn’t afford the insurance. And then one day she became ill and I took her up to the Jackson County Hospital and admitted her for pneumonia. And that’s when they found the cancer, and by then it was stage four. It was, there was nothing they could do for her. And she passed away in 22 days.”

A bit of backstory: After he lost his job at GS Industries, Soptic became a school janitor. The job had a starting salary of $24,000 — about a third of his pay at the steel plant — and did not include a health insurance plan that covered his wife.

But in an interview with CNN, Soptic said that when he lost his job at GS Industries in 2001, his wife still had health insurance through her job as an employee at Savers, a local thrift store. He told CNN that she left her job in 2002 or 2003 because of an injury, and that she then became uninsured because she didn’t have a fall-back insurance option through his employer. According to the Kansas City Star, Ranae Soptic, 55, died in 2006, five years after the GS Industries plant was closed. “She went to the hospital for pneumonia,” the story states, “but doctors found signs of very advanced cancer, and she died two weeks later on June 22.”

It’s possible to argue that if Romney, as head of Bain, hadn’t put the company into such deep debt the company might have survived. And, therefore, Soptic might have had coverage for his wife to fall back on when she lost hers after her injury, and that if she had insurance she might have sought an earlier diagnosis and might have lived longer than she did. That’s a lot of “mights.”

Of course, it’s also possible that if Bain hadn’t stepped in, the company might have closed even earlier than it did, and Soptic would then have lost his job, and his health benefits, earlier.

Officials for Priorities USA Action said it would be “overstating the point of the ad” to suggest that Soptic blames Romney for his wife’s death.

Said Bill Burton of Priorities USA Action: “This is another in a series of ads that demonstrates how long it took for communities and individuals to recover from the closing of these businesses. Families and individuals had to find new jobs, new sources of health insurance and a way to make up for the pensions they lost. Mitt Romney has had an enduring impact on the lives of thousands of men and women and for many of them, that impact has been devastating.”

Despite that explanation, however, Soptic’s comment that Romney doesn’t realize, and isn’t concerned about what “he’s done” — coming as it does immediately after Soptic talks about his wife’s death from cancer — leaves little doubt that that’s the impression the ad seeks to leave with viewers.

— Robert Farley