Obamacare isn’t to blame for death of Lummis’ husband

By Kerry Drake
— December 16, 2014

Wyoming Campaign Finance
Kerry Drake

I want people to know the Alvin Wiederspahn who was my friend, and not the one whose death has been used to turn him into a political symbol against Obamacare.

At a congressional hearing last week, his widow, Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.), tried to tie his unexpected death Oct. 24 after he suffered a heart attack to glitches the couple experienced with Obamacare. He was 65, and died at home while sleeping.

It was a moving moment that captivated many observers as well as members of the right-wing media who watched it on TV, but it simply wasn’t true. Obamacare — the Affordable Care Act — didn’t play any role in Al’s death.

I know that Cynthia hates Obamacare and everything she believes the law stands for, since like other House Republicans she has voted more than 50 times to repeal it. But what the law has accomplished is to bring health care insurance to millions of poor Americans, and I’m pretty sure Al wouldn’t want his death to be used as a reason to take that help away from his countrymen.

Al’s career as a state legislator, his law career and efforts to preserve historic buildings, while also developing Cheyenne, are well documented. What most people don’t know is that once Al got to know you, he was a friend for life. He was a compassionate man who truly cared about people. Whenever something important happened in a friend’s life, be it a happy or sad event, Al took the time to congratulate them or offer some comfort.

He knew most journalists are terrible at clipping news articles about themselves or their families, so a few days after my mother died several years ago, Al sent me a letter. Inside was a copy of my mother’s obituary notice from the newspaper I worked for at the time, along with an understanding note with memories of his own mother, and sympathy for my family’s loss. It was much appreciated.

For many years we were part of an informal group that went to a different restaurant for lunch every Wednesday in Cheyenne, and we talked about politics, sports, our jobs, our families. We never managed to solve the world’s problems, but we did share our own with our friends, and it always seemed to help.

Al always had the best ideas and advice, and he was a leader. We held a Christmas lunch every year, and he would make the reservations and happily pass out cigars and snifters of brandy to the gang, which was so appreciative of his seasonal greetings that we named him our “El Presidente” for life. Al, who had so many accomplishments in business, charity and public service, acted like it was the best honor he’d ever received.

Our luncheon group broke up long ago, after several members moved away, but when I think of Al, I like to remember him at our last Christmas party, with a cigar in his mouth and a big smile on his face.

Cynthia is the woman he loved and was devoted to, and I have considered her a friend for many years — even when we politically disagreed, which was often. But she told a whopper about Al’s death when she blamed it — at least in part — on Obamacare, and people deserve to know the truth.

Because of a provision Republicans added to the Affordable Care Act, members of Congress must have a plan through one of the health exchanges that are offered as part of Obamacare. Cynthia and her husband signed up for one in D.C., but there was apparently a glitch in the system, and when Al submitted medical claims for two tests conducted after he had chest pains, he was incorrectly told twice he and his wife weren’t covered by the plan.

I don’t pretend to know what Al thought about Obamacare, especially after his frustrations with the system. But he was an intelligent man who knew the bureaucratic mistakes would eventually be corrected, and his decision not to have a medical test need not have had anything to do with whether he was covered by the plan.

There was no guarantee, of course, that if Al had taken the cardiac test he would have lived. He was wealthy and didn’t need to rely on Obamacare. Cynthia submitted financial statements to Congress that showed her family’s net worth to be between $20 million and $75 million. She was the 15th wealthiest member of Congress at one point.

Al could have flown to any hospital in the world, paid for any tests doctors thought he should have, and not made a dent in his family’s fortune. Even if he had been concerned about costs, at 65 he was eligible for Medicare, so much of the expense would have been covered.

Obamacare wasn’t designed for millionaires like Al and Cynthia, who could easily pay for their health care out of pocket or buy whatever Cadillac insurance coverage they wanted. It was created for low-to-middle-income people who couldn’t afford skyrocketing health premiums or had been denied coverage because of pre-existing conditions. Republicans made members of Congress sign up because they incorrectly thought the unnecessary requirement would cost the bill votes.

Even though I don’t agree with her, I don’t begrudge Cynthia the opportunity to use most political tactics to make her case against Obamacare. But when she uses her late husband as a reason to take away a plan that’s helped millions, it’s offensive and inexcusable.

At a government oversight committee hearing last week, Cynthia and other Republicans grilled one of the architects of Obamacare, Jonathan Gruber, who infamously said the “stupidity of the American voter” played a major role in the passage of the new health care law. He was red meat to conservatives like Cynthia, who tried to carve him up and spit him out to prove Obamacare is a terrible idea that must be junked.

“[It was] during the course of time that [Al] was having tests by a physician and was told we were not covered by Obamacare, that he decided not to have the last test the doctor asked him to have,” she said.

Cynthia quickly couched her charge by saying Obamacare isn’t directly the reason Al died. But she stressed, “I want to suggest that regardless of what has happened to me personally, that there have been so many glitches in the passage and administration of Obamacare that have real-life consequences.”

The congresswoman unquestionably connected some ambiguous dots together to convey that her husband might be alive today if not for Obamacare.

Her version of Al’s death, and her tough questioning of Gruber and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Administrator Marilyn Tavenner, have made Cynthia a conservative hero. I don’t know if that was the reason she made her bogus claims, but she was applauded by right-wing radio and TV hosts, Tea Party bloggers and every other type of wing-nut you can name. Some examples:

ConservativeAmerican.org’s headline blared, “Obamacare Kills Congresswoman’s Husband.”

“TX Libertarian” tweeted: “My heart just broke for Congresswoman Lummis. Her husband died in part due to tests not covered by Ocrapcare. Dear Lord! #RepealThisGarbage.”

“It was  heartbreaking to hear this woman’s story,” wrote a reader on the ultra-right website freerepublic.com, which orchestrated campaigns against newsman Dan Rather and the Dixie Chicks, who dared to criticize George W. Bush.

“I wasn’t familiar with Rep. Lummis before this, [but] she was able to keep her composure much more than I would have been able to,” the reader wrote. “Just knowing that the leftist schmucks want what happened to her husband to happen to all of us makes me sick.”

Right-Wing News (motto: “Stand Up! Speak Out! Fight Back!”) proclaimed, “[Lummis] has been cheated of years with someone she obviously loved, all because of a socialist mandate and the greed of those such as Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, who pushed this monstrous healthcare law down our throats.”

Al shouldn’t have his name associated with garbage like this that totally misrepresents the reasons for his death. His widow certainly scored her political points, and some people with twisted agendas have exploited her claims and made Obamacare more hated than ever. But the cost of her late husband’s memory wasn’t worth her time in the national spotlight. In her heart, I think she knows that now. I hope so.

— Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake is a contributor to WyoHistory.org. He also moderates the WyPols blog.

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Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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  1. Thanks Kerry for the thoughtful article. I too was appalled by her use of her husband’s death to move her political agenda. As a former Cheyenne resident, I supported Al while he served in the Wyo legislature. I don’t think he or his folks for that matter would approve of her making these statements. Glitches in coverage are not only issues that happen just with the affordable care act. Glitches happen all the time with even my husband’s so called cadillac policy. They have often changed our carrier and have often dropped me off the plan. When we get the bill, my husband chases down the problem, gets it corrected and gets it paid. This is an inherent problem with large insurance companies, not unique to ACA. Good thing we’re retired to have time to sit on hold for all the phone calls….
    Lee Ann Stephenson
    Riverside, WY

  2. I find it shocking that Rep. Lummis would blame Obamacare for denying the medical test her husband should have had when the family could have easily afforded a trip to the Mayo Clinic. If she hated Obamacare so much, why did they sign up for one of its plans to begin with? Lately, though, Rep Lummis did do something great–she joined liberals Pelosi and Warren and voted AGAINST the spending bill in the house that removed important restrictions on banks. She did it for the wrong reasons, by my lights, to punish Obama for his immigration rulings, but this time, her hatred of the President and all he stands for brought her over to the side of right.
    Vicki Lindner
    Denver, CO

  3. I think Kerry has been far too kind to our our Congresswoman. It is hard to believe that she could stoop so low as to imply blame to a system that she unabashedly hates as a contributing factor to her husband’s death. While I am sure she grieves for her loss, she would be well served to start supporting the ACA for the benefits it brings to thousands of Wyomingites and starting to work on fixing its problems instead of attacking it.

    Loren Nelson, MD
    Jackson, WY

  4. Like Kerry, and many in Wyoming, I count Al and Cynthia as long-time personal friends. I agree that Al certainly could have gotten more medical care on his own, but like most of us, he probably put it off. However, this situation does point up a serious flaw in the Affordable Care Act System. What if Al had been an average citizen who was refused? The lack of access to care could well have contributed to the death of that average citizen. I agree that the former system was broken, and that the present system is likewise not working. The answer is to get busy to fix it. Other countries have workable systems which provide that health care need not bankrupt a middle class family. Cynthia is not wrong when she criticizes the system. the law needs to address the needs of most American families–not just the poor.
    Sharon O’Toole
    Savery, WY

  5. I liked Al Wiederspahn very much, though I did not know him anywhere near as well as Kerry Drake. Drake makes a tough call when he criticizes his old friend Congresswoman Lummis. But he’s right: they chose the right parents, as Rockefeller once said, and enjoy resources most humans don’t dare dream of having themselves. Who knows if the decision to have the test might have made a difference? Medicine is both science and art. But Obamacare certainly does not stop anyone with the resources Al and Cynthia possess from getting any test they want wherever in the world they want to get it.
    I’m sorry Al’s gone. But don’t blame his death on a policy that has helped so many by changing insurance standards, including my own children with their pre-existing medical conditions. And don’t deny how the ACA has helped so many people who could not afford decent insurance prior to its passage.
    Dan Neal
    Casper, WY

  6. It’s not easy (& sometimes not safe) speaking truth to power. WyoFile and Drake always do.
    Richard Garrett
    Lander, WY