Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has stopped telling a story of a pregnant woman’s medical tragedy after an Ohio hospital challenged its accuracy last weekend.
But recent accounts of the episode have omitted key details that suggest there was more truth in the essence of Clinton’s tale than her critics, and even her presidential campaign, have acknowledged.
Since early March, the New York senator has often told campaign audiences a heartbreaking story of a young Ohio woman who began having problems with her pregnancy. She said the woman was twice turned away by a local hospital because she had no health insurance and could not pay a $100 minimum charge.
Clinton, who advocates health coverage for all Americans, put it this way in Terre Haute, Ind., on March 20:
“I’ll tell you a quick story that I heard in Ohio when I was campaigning there,” she said. “A deputy sheriff told me about a young woman who worked at the pizza parlor there and she worked for minimum wage, she didn’t have any insurance. She got pregnant, went to the hospital — and I don’t blame the hospital. The hospital said, ‘We can’t take any more charity care. You have to give us $100 before we can examine you.’ She didn’t have $100. Went back another time, they told her the same thing.”
Sen. Clinton said the woman returned a third time “in an ambulance. And they worked hard to stabilize her, and she lost her baby. Then they airlifted her to Columbus to the medical center, and for 15 days they tried to save her life, and she died.”
Because Clinton never named the woman or the hospital, the story generated only gasps and tears at campaign stops. But on April 3, The Washington Post named the woman, Trina Bachtel, 35, of Middleport, Ohio, who died last August. The Daily Sentinel, a paper published in nearby Pomeroy, Ohio, cited Bachtel’s name the next day.
With the patient’s name now publicized locally and nationally, officials at O’Bleness Memorial Hospital in Athens, Ohio, feared their facility would be falsely accused. Bachtel was indeed treated in August at O’Bleness, where her baby was stillborn. But Bachtel was never refused treatment there, and she even had medical insurance, the officials told The New York Times in a story published Saturday.
“We implore the Clinton campaign to immediately desist from repeating this story,” Rick Castrop, chief executive officer of the O’Bleness Health System,” told the Times.
Media outlets and political Web sites began criticizing Clinton for retelling the unsubstantiated story. By Saturday night, Clinton’s campaign said she would drop it from her speeches.
“Candidates are told stories by people all the time, and it’s common for candidates to retell those stories,” said campaign spokesman Mo Elleithee. “In this case, we tried but weren’t able to fully vet the story.”
Clinton said she heard the story from Meigs County Deputy Sheriff Bryan Holman during a visit to Pomeroy, before the March 4 Ohio primary.
In a March 26 phone interview with The Associated Press, Holman said he had told Clinton the story in essentially the same way she was retelling it in her speeches. He said he knew the Bachtel story only second hand, and lacked several details.
The AP then spoke with Bachtel’s aunt, Susie Casto of Middleport, who helped raise the woman. She said Bachtel, who worked at a pizza parlor, did in fact have health insurance when she and her baby died.
But at an earlier time, Casto said, Bachtel lacked health insurance and ran up unpaid bills when treated at a clinic near her home in Middleport. When she returned for treatment when pregnant, the clinic demanded $100 per visit to help retire the outstanding debt, Casto said. Because Bachtel could not afford the fees and found it difficult to travel, her aunt said, she postponed receiving treatment.
Bachtel eventually went to O’Bleness, about 30 miles to the north, for attention.
Casto declined to name the clinics or hospitals involved, and said she felt medical professionals did all they could to save Bachtel and her unborn child.
Pomeroy has about 2,000 residents and two medical clinics. One is affiliated with O’Bleness, the other is the Holzer Clinic, part of a nine-facility chain.
O’Bleness Health System spokeswoman Lynn Anastos said Monday that Bachtel was not a patient at their Pomeroy facility and “she would not have been turned away for lack of payment” if she had sought treatment there.
Holzer associate administrator Jim Blevins said his company has no record of Bachtel being a patient for the past five years. About half of Holzer’s patients are “charity cases,” he said, and the company tries to work out payment schedules with those who fall behind on their bills.
In some cases, Blevins said, Holzer clinics place “credit restrictions” on patients believed to be able but unwilling to pay their bills. That would not apply to patients needing immediate or emergency care, he said.
Clinton erred in telling audiences that the Ohio woman lacked insurance when seeking help for her troubled pregnancy. But according to Casto’s account, Bachtel’s medical tragedy began with circumstances very close to the essence of Clinton’s now-abandoned account: the lack of insurance created a $100 barrier to needed medical attention close to home.