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.