In his big speech to Congress on Sept. 9, President Obama tried to pump up the sense of urgency in getting his healthcare plan passed with this sad story:

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.

Ilinois, Illinois? Lynn Sweet, Washington bureau chief for the Chicago Sun-Times, had never heard of the incident, so she looked into it. As she wrote on Sept. 13, she discovered that the key part of the story–that the man’s treatment was delayed, causing his death–wasn’t true. The treatment (actually a stem cell transplant) was not delayed, and the man, Otto Raddatz, did not die until nearly four years later Furthermore, although Raddatz did have his coverage cut off for three weeks in 2005 for failing to report that a CT scan in 2000 had shown gallstones and an aneurysm, his insurance company promptly reinstated coverage after it turned out that Raddatz’s doctor had forgotten to inform him about the results of the scan.

Here’s the true story, as reported by Sweet and later by the Wall Street Journal:

Raddatz, age 59, was diagnosed with Stage 4 non-Hodgkins lymphoma in September 2004. He was scheduled for life-extending stem cell-transplant surgery in mid-May of 2005. On April 15, 2005, his insurance company, Fortis Health (now Assurant Health) discovered the CT scan and rescinded Raddatz’s insurance policy.

On April 25, 2005 Raddatz filed a complaint with the Illinois attorney general’s office, but the office rejected the complaint on the same day for lack of evidence. Armed with more evidence of the doctor’s oversight, Raddatz lodged a second complaint, the attorney general’s office fired off a letter to Fortis on May 3, and on May 6 Fortis reinstated coverage. Raddatz got his surgery and lived until January 2009. He died just before a scheduled second transplant operation was delayed because the donor was ill.

So what happened with Obama’s speech? It seems that the president’s aides picked up the erroneous version of the story from a July 27 article in Slate–and never checked it out. The Slate writer, Timothy Noah, in turn got the story from the website of House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Henry Waxman–and never checked it out. Instead he wrote a polemic denouncing private insurance companies for canceling policies on “stupid technicalities” and calling for the government-run public option that is a keystone of ObamaCare.

Raddatz’s sister, Peggy Raddatz, a lawyer who had helped her brother with his appeals, was one of several witnesses at a hearing before Waxman’s Energy and Commerce oversight subcommittee on June 16. She described the rescission and reinstatement of her brother’s coverage, but never said that it had caused his death. She instead made it clear that the surgery had given her brother more than three extra years of life.

The subcommittee web pages consulted by Noah retailed Peggy Raddatz’s testimony but artfully left out the nearly four-year time lag between the insurance incident and Otto Raddatz’s death. As Noah explained in a second Slate article on Sept. 17:

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.”

So, let’s see: Noah, although claiming to be “on deadline,” had nearly six weeks between the June 16 date of the subcommittee hearing and the July 27 publication date of his article to make a few phone calls to Peggy Raddatz and the Illinois attorney general’s office. And Obama’s aides had nearly six more weeks after that to make a few phone calls. Only Lynn Sweet managed to pick up the telephone, and it took her only four days to get the true story into print.

In his Sept. 17 Slate article, Noah made the “fake but accurate” defense.

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.

Uh-huh. By the way, misleading an insurance company by leaving serious health problems out of your application so as to qualify for a lower premium is no mere “petty irregularity.” It’s called fraud. Had Raddatz intentionally concealed his aneurysm and gallstones, Fortis would have been justified in canceling his coverage–as the Illinois attorney general’s rejection of Raddatz’s initial complaint made clear. The same went for Robin Beaton, a retired nurse in Texas who told the subcommittee that Blue Cross/Blue Shield had canceled her coverage after she was diagnosed with breast cancer on the ground that she had failed to report prior treatment for acne. Her doctor had actually diagnosed her skin condition as “precancerous”–hardly a petty ailment and certainly relevant to the cancer she later developed.