How my factual error found its way into Obama's health care speech.

How my factual error found its way into Obama's health care speech.

How my factual error found its way into Obama's health care speech.

How to fix health policy.
Sept. 17 2009 7:38 PM

My Mistake

How a factual error in Slate ended up in a White House speech.

Click here for a guide to following the health care reform story online.

In his Sept. 9 health care speech to Congress, President Obama said:

More and more Americans pay their premiums, only to discover that their insurance company has dropped their coverage when they get sick, or won't pay the full cost of care. It happens every day. One man from Illinois lost his coverage in the middle of chemotherapy because his insurer found that he hadn't reported gallstones that he didn't even know about. They delayed his treatment, and he died because of it.

Both clauses in this last sentence were untrue, the Wall Street Journal reported Sept. 17. The insurance of the man in question, a 59-year-old Illinois restaurant owner named Otto Raddatz, did, indeed, get canceled by Fortis Insurance Co. (now Assurant Health) after he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma under a commonplace and despicable practice called rescission that would be curtailed by every health care reform bill currently under consideration. But Raddatz's treatment was not delayed fatally as a result. Raddatz's sister, an attorney, got the Illinois attorney general's office to move quickly on the matter, and even though the state failed in its initial attempt to overturn the rescission, it succeeded in its second. Raddatz got his treatment within the necessary time window and lived three more years. *

That Raddatz didn't die as a result of the rescission doesn't vindicate Fortis/Assurant (which has just been ordered by the South Carolina Supreme Court to pay $10 million to a man it rescinded for similarly dubious reasons after learning he was HIV-positive). Fortis didn't kill Raddatz with its profit-minded search for petty irregularities in Raddatz's policy; it merely attempted (and, thanks to prompt legal intervention, failed) to kill him. People die every day from a lack of health insurance. A  new Harvard study says it's responsible for 45,000 deaths annually. Even so, one hates to see a devastatingly apt anecdote get compromised through careless error. Where did the president get his misinformation?

Uh, from me.

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I didn't know it until the Journal's Jonathan Weisman phoned me yesterday for comment. I also didn't know about my error till then. Here at Slate, we correct errors quickly and conspicuously, and usually Slate readers alert me almost instantly whenever I goof (which I try very hard not to do). But nobody told me about this blunder. One obstacle may have been that my e-mail address was not at the bottom of the piece. (It will be at the end of everything I write from now on.) Another may be that, although conservative Web sites and two earlier stories by Bloomberg's Holly Rosenkrantz and the Chicago Sun-Times' Lynn Sweet caught the error before the Journal, none mentioned me by name (though Sweet traced it to Slate). Therefore none turned up in my compulsive daily vanity searches on Google.

After satisfying myself that Weisman was right, I cursed myself for being the source of misinformation heard 'round the world. It may not be yellowcake, but it's still pretty embarrassing. Then I decided, in the Obama spirit, to turn my blunder into a teachable moment. How do errors find their way into the public discourse? Herewith, a case history.

Peggie Raddatz.
Peggie Raddatz

On June 16, the House energy and commerce committee's investigation subcommittee held a hearing (here's the transcript and video) documenting the termination of health insurance policies held by seriously ill people. The hearing received scant coverage in the mainstream media (notable exceptions were the Los Angeles Times, CNN.com, and Time's Swampland blog), prompting Democratic strategist and CNN commentator Paul Begala to chide the press for blowing it off. Begala's complaint was picked up by Media Matters for America, the liberal-media watchdog. In the ever-present media din, I missed all this. But one month later I heard a gripping story based on the hearings on Chicago Public Radio's This American Life. I'd been thinking for some time that I should write about rescissions, and this prompted me to do it.

The story, I quickly discovered, was a Web-based journalist's dream. The investigation subcommittee, which is chaired by the media-savvy Rep. Bart Stupak, D.-Mich., had placed a wealth of material online—a partial summary of its investigation, other documents from that hearing, and additional documents from a follow-up field hearing in New Albany, Ind., on July 27, the very day I was writing. * Drawing on hearing testimony, I summarized the cases of Robin Beaton, a retired nurse in Texas who was rescinded by Blue Cross and Blue Shield after she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer (reason: she hadn't disclosed a previous treatment for acne) and Raddatz, whose story was told by his surviving sister, Peggy. Beaton had eventually gotten her congressman, Rep. Joe Barton, R.-Tex., to pressure Blue Cross and Blue Shield into reinstating her. Raddatz had died.

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In her opening statement Peggy Raddatz said that at the time Fortis rescinded Otto's policy he "only had a very small window of time" to receive a scheduled stem cell transplant; it had to be "within the next three to four weeks." As a result, "the stem cell transplant could not be scheduled." Peggy said she eventually got his insurance reinstated, but only "after two appeals" from the Illinois attorney general. Peggy didn't mention whether Otto subsequently had his surgery. Reading quickly on deadline, I jumped to the conclusion that he must not have gotten the transplant in time—wouldn't two legal appeals take more than four weeks?—and died as a result. Here is what I wrote: "The delay in treatment eliminated Raddatz's chances of recovery, and he died."

Whoops.

Peggy gave a more detailed account in the full hearing transcript, but I skimmed this quickly—too quickly, it turns out. Had I studied it more closely, I'd have learned that the "appeals" Peggy referred to weren't legal proceedings but two letters that the Illinois attorney general sent to Fortis. More crucially, I would have noticed the following exchange:

Rep. Joe Barton:Your brother, has he had his stem cell transplant?

Peggy Raddatz: He did indeed receive the stem cell transplant. It was extremely successful. It extended his life approximately three and a half years. He did pass away Jan. 6, 2009, and he was about to have a second stem cell transplant. Unfortunately, due to certain situations, his donor became ill at the last minute and so he did pass away on Jan. 6.

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Whoops. It also wouldn't have hurt to phone Raddatz to clarify the ambiguous parts of Otto's story, but I didn't.

Otto Raddatz's sad tale took about two weeks to travel the dozen blocks from Slate's Dupont Circle office to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. The earliest reference I can find was in remarks Obama gave in a town hall on health care in Portsmouth, N.H., on Aug. 11:

Another lost his coverage in the middle of chemotherapy because the insurance company discovered he had gallstones that he hadn't known about when he applied for insurance. Now, that is wrong, and that will change when we pass health care reform.

Note that the president got the story right this first time. That may mean I wasn't the White House's initial source. Three days later, though, Obama incorporated my error into his telling of Raddatz's story, in an Aug. 14 appearance in Belgrade, Mont.:

One man from Illinois lost his coverage in the middle of chemotherapy because his insurer discovered he hadn't reported gallstones he didn't know about. True story. Because his treatment was delayed, he died.

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Whoops. Obama also repeated the error in an Aug. 15 New York Times op-ed:

A man lost his health coverage in the middle of chemotherapy because the insurance company discovered that he had gallstones, which he hadn't known about when he applied for his policy. Because his treatment was delayed, he died.

Whoops again. Obama's claim that Raddatz died because of the delay was denounced as "a lie" in an Aug. 23 blog post on a conservative Web site run by Ed Failor Jr., president of Iowans for Tax Relief, who has a penchant for comparing his state's Democrats to Nazis. I didn't see the blog item, and, probably, the White House didn't, either. When Obama repeated the error in his address to Congress, he got called a liar again the next day, this time on a conservative blog called Sweetness & Light. Kathryn Jean Lopez linked to it on National Review's blog, The Corner. A complaint was also posted on the conservative site Free Republic. Bloomberg got it next, characterizing it not as a deliberate lie but merely as untrue, followed by the Sun-Times, which did the same. The Sun-Times' Sweet wrote: "Obama speechwriters, I was told, got their information about Raddatz in a July 27 story in Slate." Weisman's subsequent Wall Street Journal story said:

Obama speech writers appear to have been informed by erroneous media reports, including an article on Slate.com that stated, "The delay in treatment eliminated Raddatz's chances of recovery, and he died." Its author, Timothy Noah, said Wednesday that he wasn't contacted by the White House and didn't realize Mr. Raddatz hadn't died because of the treatment delay.

Just for the record, I see no reason why the White House should have contacted me to check this story. I only mentioned it because Weisman asked me. If the White House was going to contact anybody, that should have been Peggy Raddatz. I'm certainly not going to criticize the White House for relying on my reporting, which (as it happens) once graced the pages of the Wall Street Journal. It's usually pretty reliable. In this instance, it wasn't. For that, I am truly sorry.

E-mail Timothy Noah at chatterbox@slate.com.

Correction, Sept. 18, 2009: An earlier version of this column referred to the procedure in question, a stem-cell transplant, as an "operation." ( Return to the corrected sentence.) Stem-cell transplant is an intravenous procedure. It also stated that Rep. Henry Waxman chairs the investigation subcommittee. Waxman chairs the full committee. ( Return to the corrected sentence.) And yes, the writer is aware that it's ironic for a story about an error to require correction.