The big news story of the last 24 hours, of course, is the Senate Intelligence Committee’s sickening torture report. But you might also have heard about Wyo. Rep. Cynthia Lummis’s dramatic statement yesterday as a member of Darrell Issa’s Committee on Oversight and Government Reform’s Jonathan Gruber/Marilyn Tavenner Obamacare hearing.
The purpose of the hearing was, naturally … well, you know. But something surprising did happen at the hearing. In short, Lummis, the chairwoman of the Republican Study Committee’s Obamacare-repeal subcommittee, claimed that her 65-year-old Medicare-eligible husband failed to get a physician-recommended medical test to diagnose the cause of his chest pains because he was told incorrectly that he and his wife “were not covered by Obamacare”.
Even if you did hear about this, you might have missed Washington Post political blogger Nia-Malika Henderson’s precious take on it as “the most moving moment of the Gruber hearing.”:
Jonathan Gruber, the MIT economist who said that the stupidity of the American public played a major role in the passage of the Affordable Care Act, came to Capitol Hill on Tuesday to be verbally flogged by members of Congress. Amid the predictable litany of “stupid” references, Wyoming Republican Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) provided a poignant moment. Here’s what she said:
“On October 24, the week before election, my husband went to sleep and never woke up. He had a massive heart attack in his sleep at age 65. A perfectly, by all accounts, healthy man. Come to find out, in a conversation with his physician after he died, he chose not to have one of the tests, the last tests, his doctor told him to have. This happened to coincide with the time that we were told that we were not covered by Obamacare. I’m not telling you that my husband died because of Obamacare. He died because he had a massive heart attack in his sleep.
“Lummis’s husband was Alvin Wiederspahn, a former Democratic state legislator and a lawyer and rancher. They married in 1983. When he died, Lummis released this statement, which mentions the couple’s only child: ‘Last night, my husband, Al, passed away peacefully in his sleep in our home in Cheyenne. Annaliese and I know that God has taken Al home to heaven, but right now our hearts are broken.’
“Her statement about her husband in the Gruber hearing wasn’t so much a question as much as it was a raw accusation about the Affordable Care Act, a statement she ended by asking for some compassion. ‘I want to suggest that regardless of what happened to me personally, that there have been so many glitches in the passage and implementation of Obamacare that have real-life consequences on peoples’ lives,’ she said, almost choking up. ‘The so-called glibness that has been referenced today has direct consequences for real American people. So get over your damn glibness.’”
“Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Marilyn Tavenner tried to offer Lummis some sympathy, but was cut off by outgoing chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.)”
Hearings like this are always political. But they don’t usually offer such deeply-felt personal stories from lawmakers.
Apparently, it didn’t occur to Henderson, nor for that matter to Tavenner, to mention that Lummis’ husband surely was covered by Medicare. For the record, Mr. Wiederspahn, according to his own Wikipedia page, was born on January 18, 1949, so he turned 65 a full 10 months before his death.
Also for the record, Lummis and her husband had a net worth of between $20 million and $75 million, including three Wyoming ranches. Although Mr. Wiederspahn himself came from a prominent Cheyenne family and was a successful lawyer, the couple, who met when they were young across-the-political-aisle colleagues in the state legislature, inherited most of their extensive wealth from Lummis’s family.
Lummis said at that hearing that her husband had had several routine heart-health tests, presumably months or at least weeks before he died, and had submitted payment claims to “Obamacare,” but was told, erroneously, by “Obamacare” that the two of them were not were not covered, even though they had purchased a plan through the DC exchange website. She said he resubmitted the bills and was told again that he and his wife weren’t covered. But he was covered primarily by Medicare. And of course he knew that. Lummis didn’t mention that, but she did say that he had been having chest pains yet declined to have that final diagnostic test.
Lummis ran unsuccessfully in September to chair the Republican Study Committee, and she heads its legislative-repeal subcommittee. Her story was not a deeply-felt personal one but instead a deeply-felt ideological one. The chance is nil that her husband delayed getting that final diagnostic test for fear that he might have to pay out-of-pocket some relatively small portion of the cost for the test–the portion that Medicare would not pay. Or that he thought the insurance error would not be corrected.
Her claim is a fraud. Call her the “‘Jackie’, the-University-of-Virginia-fraternity-gang-rape-victim” of the Obamacare-horror-story crowd. By which I mean that, theoretically at least, her fabrication in order to try to serve her cause may prove to have the opposite effect. But only if the news media reports the credibility issues. And because this is not about sex but instead about Obamacare, the news media probably won’t.
And, no, I’m not being glib. Lives indeed are at stake.
And while it may be unfair to analogize Henderson to Rolling Stone journalist Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the author of the infamous UVa-fraternity-gang-rape article—Henderson, after all, was just extemporaneously reacting to what she had just seen on CSPAN, not writing an ostensibly extensively-investigated in-depth news article—I’ll draw the analogy anyway, albeit while noting that important distinction.
But Henderson certainly is correct on her last point: Congressional hearings don’t usually offer such deeply-felt personal stories—real ones or fake ones—from lawmakers. Nor, of course, was this lawmaker actually testifying. Not under oath, anyway.
But to Henderson’s observation, I’ll add one of my own: There has, at least to my knowledge, never been a House or Senate hearing at which, say, a surviving spouse of someone who died because of lack of access to diagnostic tests or to treatment because of the family could not afford healthcare insurance on the private market on the pair’s minimum-wage jobs, or because the spouse had a pre-existing condition detailed this. Nor, to my knowledge, has there been testimony by a witness who alone or along with a spouse filed for bankruptcy, or completed lifelong savings and retirement accounts, because of huge and possibly ongoing medical bills that far exceeded the pre-Obamacare annual benefit cap on the family’s Blue Cross plan.
For that matter, there has been no Congressional-hearing testimony by people who will lose access to healthcare insurance if Antonin Scalia brings along with him next spring the votes of four other justices to interpret the ACA as containing an antidisestablishmentarian clause that bars insurance-premium subsidies under that statute in states that have allowed the federal government to set up and run their state’s insurance exchange website, as per the ACA, rather than set one up and run it itself. During a little-publicized private speech to the Appellate Judges Education Institute Summit last month, Scalia decided to tamp down public speculation that in the ACA cases, King v. Burwell and Halbig v. Burwell, he might adhere to the rule of statutory construction that he announced for the Court last June in a ruling favoring a who’s-who cadre of anti-environmental-regulations Republican campaign finance benefactors, and against the EPA. Scalia reportedly told his audience that judges don’t have the power to interpret “garbage” statutes enacted by Congress to avoid an undesired outcome. (Scalia and four of his colleagues do believe, however, as they demonstrate regularly these days, that they have the power to interpret non-garbage statutes and statutory procedural rules as garbage statutes, but apparently he didn’t mention that in his speech.)
And there has been no Congressional testimony by anyone who, notwithstanding a very moderate annual income ($11,670 to $29,175 a year for an individual), this year has enjoyed excellent healthcare insurance through an ACA provision that has remained almost secret because it requires a separate budget appropriation that the Republicans have blocked. HHS has used funds appropriated for the tax subsidies to fund the program this year, but the professional-anti-Obamacare-litigation industrial complex is challenging the legality of this in the courts. New York Times healthcare reporter Robert Pear explained on November 29:
In mounting the latest court challenge to the Affordable Care Act, House Republicans are focusing on a little-noticed provision of the law that offers financial assistance to low and moderate income people.
Under this part of the law, insurance companies must reduce copayments, deductibles and other out-ofpocket costs for some people in health plans purchased through the new public insurance exchanges. The federal government reimburses insurers for the “cost-sharing reductions.”
Nor has there been Congressional testimony by anyone who is deeply grateful for the dramatic slowing of the decades-long virulently-rising annual increase in healthcare insurance costs for private-employer-based insurance, although surely there are many, many millions who are.
I want to suggest that regardless of what happened to Lummis personally, that although there have been so many glitches in the passage and implementation of Obamacare, the actual real-life consequences of Obamacare on peoples’ lives are that it mitigates to some extent but by no means fully the profoundly harsh and quite-often deadly American healthcare-access/healthcare-coverage system, and that Lummis is fraudulently invoking her husband’s untimely death in the service of trying to strip millions of spouses, parents, and children of their newfound, very-long-in-coming access to diagnostic tests, treatments, and preventative medical care. That—unlike her false indictment of the ACA in her husband’s death—is a fact.
Lummis’s husband, whether or not he remained a Democrat throughout his life, did remain someone whose heart was in the right place. He reportedly played a large role in obtaining financial support for Cheyenne’s largest homeless shelter. His widow should have let him rest in peace, rather than glibly invoking his death in a cause whose purpose is to deny access to healthcare insurance to massive numbers of people. His widow’s glibness was intended to have direct consequences for real American people, of exactly the sort that her husband (who surely knew that at the least he was covered by Medicare) did not face. It is not Gruber, but Lummis, whose glibness will kill, as is its intention.
Yes, Henderson really did title her blog post “This was the most moving moment of the Gruber hearing.” Once Obamacare has been repealed root-and branch, as Mitch McConnell has vowed, or just branch-but-not root, by the Supreme Court, as Scalia is hinting, there will be many possible moving moments, superficially similar but substantively different than Lummis’s, although of course not by lawmakers. There still is a difference between staged theater and real life; at least I think so. So I suppose we’ve seen the last of the moving moments, at Congressional hearings, concerning spousal deaths due to lack of health insurance coverage.
Lummis surely mourns her husband. Deeply. But she also made him her unwitting stage prop yesterday.