It started innocently enough — with an e-mail to Ken Rudin, NPR's Political Junkie, from Ruth Lezotte, of Okemos, Mich.:
"Where do the candidates, especially the Republicans, get their health insurance? (Former New York Mayor Rudy) Giuliani had cancer a number of years ago — what free-market insurance company did he turn to? (Former Sen. Fred) Thompson had/has cancer. What free-market company is he using? (Former Massachusetts Gov.) Mitt (Romney) doesn't seem to have a job. What free-market company is he using? What about (Former Sen. John) Edwards? What about any of the other candidates who are not in the Senate?"
That was on Sept. 18, and it launched what can be described only as an odyssey. Rudin forwarded the e-mail to me, since I cover health care politics for NPR. He just wanted me to answer the question. But it struck me as not only a good question but a good story. Little did I know how difficult it would be to find out such seemingly innocuous information.
Since I was busy covering the children's health-insurance debate in Congress and preparing for a series of health-care forums with individual presidential candidates, I assigned one of our interns to begin calling each campaign to find out not just how the candidates got their coverage, but whether their campaign staff got health insurance, too. About three weeks later, the intern had determined the health coverage for exactly one candidate (Republican Rep. Ron Paul of Texas).
So I took the task on myself. Surely, campaign spokespeople who wouldn't return a call from an intern would quickly respond to a nationally known correspondent?
Several weeks, several dozen phone calls and even more unreturned e-mails later, I got my answer: No, they wouldn't.
I did manage to corral several of the candidates (as you can hear in the story) either immediately before or after the health-care forums, since I was one of the questioners.
But other than Edwards, candidates whose coverage was most potentially interesting remained: cancer survivors Giuliani and Thompson, and Romney (who helped sign the law that effectively required him to have health insurance).
Thompson staffers said early on they didn't want to play — and simply declined to provide any information. Fair enough. But spokespeople for Giuliani and Romney and former Gov. Mike Huckabee kept promising they would get back to me soon.
Days stretched into weeks. Thanksgiving came and went. So did Christmas. The Iowa caucuses approached. Finally, shortly after Giuliani's brief hospitalization in St. Louis for what was described only as "flu-like symptoms," a spokeswoman for him said the campaign had decided against releasing any information about his health insurance.
Not long after, a Huckabee spokeswoman said her campaign had similarly decided that the former governor's health-insurance coverage "is not information that needs to be publicly available — but that health care remains one of the governor's signature issues."
The Romney campaign never did respond to repeated phone calls and e-mails.