State of the health care debate: Talk radio attacks an 11-year old

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 18, 2010 

US NEWS HEALTHCARE-CHILD 4 MCT

An 11-year-old Washington state boy whose mother died after she lost her job and her health insurance after becoming sick has come under fire from conservative talk show hosts and columnists.

ROD LAMKEY JR. / MCT

WASHINGTON — Conservative talk show hosts and columnists have ridiculed an 11-year-old Washington state boy's account of his mother's death as a "sob story" exploited by the White House and congressional Democrats like a "kiddie shield" to defend their health care legislation.

Marcelas Owens, whose mother got sick, lost her job, lost her health insurance and died, said Thursday he's taking the attacks from Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Michelle Malkin in stride.

"My mother always taught me they can have their own opinion but that doesn't mean they are right," Owens, who lives in Seattle, said in an interview.

Owens' grandmother, Gina, who watched her daughter die, isn't quite so generous.

"These are adults, and he is an 11-year-old boy who lost his mother," Gina Owens said. "They should be ashamed."

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., told Marcelas Owens' story to President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden at the White House health care summit last month. Murray also has spoken about it on the Senate floor. Last week, Owens was in the nation's capital to speak at a health care rally and to meet with Senate Democratic leadership.

Limbaugh, Beck and Malkin are skeptical about the story, saying there were other forms of medical help available after Owens' mother, Tifanny, lost her health insurance. They lambasted Democrats for using the story.

"Now this is unseemly, exploitative, an 11-year-old boy being forced to tell his story all over just to benefit the Democrat Party and Barack Obama," Limbaugh said on March 12, according to a transcript his show. "And, I would say this to Marcelas Owens: 'Well, your mom would still have died, because Obamacare doesn't kick in until 2014.'"

Beck, according to a transcript of his March 15 show, pointed out that Owens' recent trip to Washington was paid for by Healthcare of America, a group that has been lobbying for a health care overhaul.

"That's the George Soros-funded Obama-approved group fighting for health care," Beck said. "Since all of the groups are so concerned and involved now, may I ask where were you when Marcelas' mother was vomiting blood?"

Beck, who's from Mount Vernon, Wash., said there were plenty of programs in Washington state that could have helped Tifanny Owens.

Malkin dismissed Marcelas Owens as "one of Obama's youngest lobbyists" who has been "goaded by a left-wing activist grandmother," promoted by Murray and has become a regular on the "pro-Obamacare circuit."

Malkin also suggested there were other programs that could have helped Tifanny Owens, adding, "It's not clear that additional doctors' visits in the subsequent months would have prevented her death."

Tifanny Owens died in June 2007 of pulmonary hypertension, which is described as high blood pressure in the arteries of the lungs that can lead to heart failure. The disease is considered rare. While there's no cure, it can be treated.

The treatments can cost as much as $100,000 a year and must be "consistent and constant," said Katie Kroner, the director of advocacy and awareness for the Pulmonary Hypertension Association.

"It's extremely important to have health coverage," she said.

Owens was an assistant manager at a fast food restaurant when she became sick in September 2006. As she became sicker, she missed work and was eventually fired, leaving her without health insurance. She was treated twice in an emergency room and died at age 27 after a week of unconsciousness. Gina Owens has custody of Marcelas and his two younger sisters.

Gina Owens said her daughter didn't qualify for Medicaid. State officials said that without knowing the details, it was impossible to speculate on whether Tifanny Owens would have qualified.

Tifanny Owens might have been eligible for Washington state's basic health care plan, which is aimed at the working poor. The plan has had a long waiting list for some time, said Sharon Michael of the Washington state Health Care Authority.

"Right now, we have 100,000 people on the wait list," Michael said.

Limbaugh has gone after young people before. In 2007, he told listeners that Democrats were exploiting an 18-year-old Yup'ik Eskimo and that her congressional testimony of global warming made him want to "puke."

Murray said she was appalled at how vicious the health care debate has become.

"The mom in me is getting really mad," she said. "You don't tear apart an 11-year-old because his mom died."

Marcelas Owens said he'll never know if his mother might have lived if she had health insurance.

"At least if she had it she would've had a fighting chance," he said.

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