The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

No, the government did not pay for Mitch McConnell’s polio care. Charity did.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). (Susan Walsh/AP)

The story about how Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell received his polio treatment began with a meme.

“As a kid, Mitch McConnell had polio, and the government paid for ALL of his care and rehabilitation,” says a text below an apparent picture of a young McConnell. It went on to say that McConnell (R-Ky.), now the face of the Senate Republicans' controversial health-care bill, wants to take away the government-funded care that once helped him.

That meme has been shared hundreds of thousands of times since Occupy Democrats posted it on its Facebook page on Thursday. So has the story that followed it. Another story by Death and Taxes, an online magazine, says that McConnell “wants to take away government assistance from children who may be suffering similar conditions.”

He got his; the rest of us are on our own.Image by Occupy Democrats, LIKE our page for more!

Posted by Occupy Democrats on Thursday, June 22, 2017

Similar stories have since been shared on Facebook, mostly by left-wing sites, and have been making the rounds on Twitter. A story about a man who relied on the government to help him recover from a debilitating disability, but is now pushing for a bill that would deeply cut government care for the poor seems to expose hypocrisy and sounds like an irresistible weapon for anyone who opposes the legislation.

But that story is false, historians told The Washington Post.

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McConnell was struck with polio at the age of 2 in 1944, a decade before a vaccine was developed. He'd written in his memoir, “The Long Game,” that he received treatment at the polio treatment center that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had founded in Warm Springs, Ga.

The articles falsely claim that McConnell's health care was paid for by the public, and therefore, by the government.

The funds for the treatment center were raised by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, a nonprofit that collected private donations from willing Americans, historians say. Its head was Basil O'Connor, Roosevelt's former law partner who created a network of local chapters to raise money.

Shortly after the foundation was created in 1937, comedian Eddie Cantor spearheaded a fundraising campaign that he called March of Dimes, a pun on the contemporary newsreel, “The March of Time.” Its goal was simple: Use radio and the president's Birthday Ball to encourage people to donate at least one dime to the cause of fighting polio. The result was an “avalanche of donations” in the form of 80,000 letters containing dimes and dollars that inundated the White House mail room, according to the March of Dimes website. By Jan. 29, 1938, the eve of Roosevelt's birthday, Americans had donated a total of 2,680,000 dimes, or $268,000.

“This wasn't like NPR or a taxpayer funded museum or library,” David Oshinsky, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning historical narrative “Polio: An American Story,” said in an email. “This was millions of Americans donating a dime or a quarter to a fully private charity.”

Although Roosevelt, who himself suffered from polio, used his name and popularity to raise money for his treatment center, it did not receive federal dollars, Oshinsky said.

“Fighting polio was a story of voluntarism,” he said, “not government involvement.”

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The work at the foundation was also strictly nonpartisan, and all the dollars spent on research and rehabilitation, including millions on the Salk polio vaccine trial in 1954, “came from countless small donations from average Americans,” Oshinsky said.

March of Dimes, Oshinsky added, revolutionized charity giving.

“Rather than relying on a few wealthy donors, it raised small donations from millions of people. No one was too poor to give a dime to help a kid try to walk again,” he said. “McConnell was one of thousands of children with polio who received help free of charge, thanks to the shrewd advertising of the March of Dimes and the goodness of the American people.”

Elisabeth Clemens, a sociology professor at the University of Chicago, said it's likely that the stories by Occupy Democrats and others relied on a misunderstanding of what public money is and falsely concluded that dollars donated by members of the public to a private organization are the same as taxpayer dollars that fund government programs.

“The case with Warm Springs, it's a private organization supported by what some people called citizen philanthropy, sort of mass giving and civic benevolence,” said Clemens, who is writing a book about mass giving. “To assume that because it was supported by the public, it was all government money, that's a mistake reading of contemporary words' previous usage … Warm Springs and the March of Dimes were supported by individual giving, motivated by gratitude and loyalty to the president.”

Clemens said she won't comment on the motivation behind the stories, but she said that today's society is responsible for some of the confusion. The system of social services has made it difficult for the public to know which programs or services are solely funded by taxpayer dollars and which receive a combination of public and private money.

Georgia took over Warm Springs years after Roosevelt's death, making it a public organization.

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March of Dimes has since evolved into its own organization. Its president, Stacey D. Stewart, said in a statement to The Post that the group does not know to what extent March of Dimes funding helped McConnell.

“What we do know is that millions of children, just like Mitch McConnell, were helped by the work and support of the March of Dimes and our public partnerships. … We see first-hand how important it is for every parent to have access to the care their children need to survive and thrive. Senator McConnell's story shows why it is critically important for families — regardless of incomes — to be able to get the care and treatments they need.

McConnell's staff did not respond to a request for comment. Colin Taylor, who wrote the Occupy Democrats story, also did not respond.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) unveiled the legislation that would reshape a big piece of the U.S. health-care system on Thursday, June 22. Here's what we know about the bill. (Video: Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

Incidentally, March of Dimes has spoken out against the Senate health-care bill, also known as the Better Care Reconciliation Act. The organization's analysis finds that the bill would take away coverage from millions of childbearing women, Stewart said.

“The fact is that no medical experts or organizations representing actual patients have been asked for input for the BCRA,” Stewart said. “March of Dimes, the national leader in the health of moms and babies, has not had a chance to meet with Senate leadership, or testify on the impact we believe this legislation will have — especially on those lower income and at-risk families.”

The Congressional Budget Office forecasts that the bill would cause about 22 million more Americans to be uninsured in the next decade. That number is just over a million fewer than the CBO estimate on the House version of the bill, which was passed hastily last month.

The CBO's analysis comes at a critical time for McConnell and other Republican leaders as they try to rally support for the bill, while facing resistance from their own party's moderate and conservative wings.

Here are the Congressional Budget Office's key estimates for how the Senate health-care plan would impact Americans' health insurance coverage and costs. (Video: Jenny Starrs, Daron Taylor/The Washington Post)

Amy Goldstein and Kelsey Snell contributed to this story.


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