Most media outlets have a policy that prohibits them from doing any hard-hitting news stories about a campaign once we reach the weekend before Election Day [insert obvious joke here]. It is a practice that we don’t disagree with, because it would be unfair to drop a bombshell accusation on a candidate in a news story if they don’t have enough time before Election Day to attempt to refute the claim.
Anything that was going to be reported about the big 2014 races has either been done already or won’t resurface until after Election Day. There are probably plenty of untold campaign stories, but we’re particularly interested in one specific loop that never did get closed by the media – even though numerous reporters poked around the edges. Call it, “The Elephant (Still) In the Room.”
Republican Rep. Cory Gardner had plenty of prepared talking points about why he decided to run for the U.S. Senate when he announced his intentions last February. At the top of that list was Gardner’s very own Obamacare Horror Story — a story that Gardner played up for the national media last fall before balking at answering further questions. Here’s Gardner’s Obamacare story, in his own words, from a speech on the House Floor on September 26, 2013:
The plan that my family had was an affordable plan. We shopped for it. We worked hard to find a plan that met our needs in rural Colorado. We found a plan that is now being cancelled and the plan that replaces it now increases in cost by over 100%. In fact, the plan that is most similar to the one we had is now going up to $1,480 a month — it’s a 100% increase from the plan that we had.
And here’s Gardner one day later, appearing on CNN’s Crossfire:
[Holding up letter.] "I'm going to be paying 100 percent more. A hundred percent more under my plan. Thanks to Obama. I'm choosing the plan that is most similar to the plan that cost me $650 before."
Gardner has repeatedly said that he had a health insurance plan that covered his wife and two children at a monthly cost of just $650 (Gardner claimed to have opted-out of the insurance plan offered to Members of Congress). Gardner then said that the most comparable “replacement” plan offered to his family would cost “$1,480,” which he said would cost his family 100% more money. Gardner even went so far as to say that the “replacement” plans for his family were somehow inferior to the coverage he received when paying just $650 per month.
This story that Gardner told on the House Floor and in a House Committee Hearing (in front of then-Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius) was repeated in an Op-Ed in the Colorado Springs Gazette, again during his Senate campaign kick-off, throughout his campaign for Senate, and in at least one television advertisement. It was a story that formed the very basis of Gardner’s entire campaign for U.S. Senate.
But is it true?
Logic would dictate that these two statements could not both be correct:
Gardner paid $650 for a health insurance plan that was comprehensive and robust.
- The most comparable replacement plan offered to Gardner under the Affordable Care Act was a low-deductible “Silver” plan with a $1,480 monthly premium.
Perhaps Gardner had good reason for refusing to cooperate with reporters inquiring about his health insurance story. Potentially, Gardner could have had a “catastrophic” health insurance policy, or perhaps a health savings account (HSA) with a high deductible insurance plan, but that's clearly not the comparison that Gardner is trying to make with his Obamacare story. Furthermore, as anyone who has ever had to pay for family health insurance can attest, it seems completely implausible that anyone could have had robust health insurance coverage with a monthly premium of just $650.
If you believe that Gardner did have a $650 monthly policy, you cannot also believe that the most comparable replacement plan was a near-top-of-the-line $1,480 “Silver” plan.
As Gardner’s story gained national attention last fall, multiple media outlets began digging deeper on his health insurance claims. Fox 31 reporter Eli Stokols was among the first to start asking questions…and the first to get rebuffed. As Stokols reported in October 2013, Gardner would not corroborate his story:
Since then, FOX31 Denver has asked Gardner to provide a copy of the letter or to provide additional details about the policies.
After our story aired on Good Day Colorado Friday morning, Gardner released a copy of the letter with some information redacted, that he says his family received.
Gardner’s immediate and persistent refusal to provide more details about his “$650 health insurance plan” was another eyebrow-raising moment. The “$1,480 plan” that Gardner references when discussing his “policy cancellation” indicates that Gardner believed the closest comparable plan to his $650 policy was a low-deductible “Silver” comprehensive health plan from Rocky Mountain Health Plans (when he finally released his letter, it was RMHP that was shown to be his insurance carrier). If Gardner did indeed have a comprehensive $650 plan, then why not just reveal the details to reporters?
Why duck and cover if you can stand and dismiss instead?
That Gardner refused to provide details of his miraculous $650 insurance plan, despite numerous media requests, made plenty of reporters wonder if there was more to the story. Many media members seemed to be on the trail as the 2014 campaign entered its final months — particularly when Gardner began to run a television ad with the same story. 9News reporter Brandon Rittiman did his own "Truth Test" of Gardner's ad, and ended up with…well, not a lot of "truth." As Rittiman concluded:
As for the congressman's personal story, you should take it with a grain of salt because we don't have all the details.
During an interview with Gardner weeks later, Rittiman again tried to get some answers:
RITTIMAN (4:10): We also asked a few times for Garder to share details of his cancelled healthcare plan, which he's used as an issue in the campaign. No dice, but he did offer this retort…
…RITTIMAN: You don't want to discuss the details of your old plan?
In late September, Stokols sat down for an interview with Gardner and questioned him on a number of topics (this is the same interview where Gardner really went off the rails with his "There is no federal personhood bill" shtick). For the purposes of this story, skip ahead to the 1:42 mark:
STOKOLS: “A lot of folks heard that number — $650 a month for a family of four – and thought it was incredibly low. So we did try to confirm that, and your office denied our request.”
In this same interview, Stokols says that Gardner’s office refused a request to look at copies of his Congressional pay stubs, which could indicate whether Gardner had some kind of additional health insurance coverage prior to the Affordable Care Act. It's an interesting, and legitimate, line of inquiry; Gardner could have had a $650 policy for someone in his family if he also had additional insurance.
About 10 days later, the Denver Post picked up on the thread during their live Senate debate. Here's Denver Post political editor Chuck Plunkett:
PLUNKETT: While you've been quick to waive the letter around and criticize Obamacare, you've redacted the portion about the specific plan your family was using. Why won't you tell voters what was in that plan? Why the secrecy?
Gardner ducks and dodges again at this question, which leads to separate follow-up questions from Plunkett — including a pretty damning statement about the believability of Gardner's answers:
PLUNKETT (1:26): Why did you redact a portion of the specific plan that your family was using?…
…PLUNKETT (2:35): Sometimes if a candidate doesn't answer a question that also tells you something about the candidate that voters can know. [Pols emphasis]
Gardner did not, and would not, discuss details of his old health insurance plan, no matter who asked. Reporters weren’t asking Gardner for any details about his family’s health and well-being – they just wanted proof of the fantastical story Gardner spun on Capitol Hill.
So why the secrecy?
Well, it's pretty clear that this story has the potential to create a whole series of devastating problems for Gardner. If Gardner can’t prove his story true, then the entire affair takes different turn: It means Gardner told a pre-meditated lie both on the House floor and in a Congressional Committee. It means that at least one of his campaign ads on the subject was knowingly false. It means the entire premise of his campaign for U.S. Senate was a lie.
Maybe there's nothing to this story, but if that's the case, why did Gardner and his campaign work so hard to avoid answering seemingly innocuous questions? What does Rocky Mountain Health Plans (RMHP) have to say? Could Gardner have had some sort of robust insurance policy in 2013 at the low cost of $650? Without getting into details, RMHP should be able to answer questions about whether or not they even sold such a cheap product.
Whatever the reason, it seems obvious that Gardner wanted to get through his U.S. Senate campaign without ever actually answering questions about his "Obamacare Horror Story" that he claimed as the impetus for running in the first place. Regardless of what happens on Election Day, this is still a story with questions that need answers.