By Allison J. Waldman
Richard Heene and his 6-year-old son, “Balloon Boy” Falcon, weren’t the only Colorado father and son to gain national attention from a news story in 2009. Bernie Lange, anchor at KKCO-TV in Grand Junction, and his infant son, Alex, also created a media avalanche and a viral sensation.
Rather than staging an elaborate hoax, all Lange had to do was try to get his 4-month-old baby covered on his health insurance plan.
“I applied for the insurance after Alex was born, and we submitted his 2-month-old wellness exam,” said Lange. “The broker from Rocky Mountain Health Plan came back and said, ‘We can cover you, we can cover your other son, Vincent, but we can’t cover Alex because he’s too fat.’”
Based on the wellness exam, which showed that Alex weighed 14 pounds, the Lange family could not get their baby coverage.
At the time, Alex was not eating solid food. He was being breastfed and, according to his pediatrician, was a remarkably healthy baby. Nevertheless, the insurance company rejected Alex.
“His weight was considered a pre-existing condition. Too fat was a pre-existing condition,” said Lange. “My immediate reaction was anger because it didn’t sound like that much of a surprise given the state of health care in our country. The broker was just delivering the message, but I remember saying, ‘At what point can Alex be covered under this plan – after he diets for a few months?’”
Lange’s anger became a catalyst to act. As a morning anchor at the NBC affiliate, he pitched the story of his personal health care quandary – one that other people might also be experiencing – to the news staff.
“Everybody loved it and said let’s pursue that,” he said. A KKCO news reporter interviewed Kelli Lange, Alex’s mother, that same day. Then The Denver Post called for an interview, which ran on Oct. 10, 2009.
Despite appearing on a Saturday, a day when newspaper circulation is generally low, the Denver Post story was picked up by news media around the country. “By Monday there was a huge media onslaught. I got calls from all the networks, all the morning shows, CNN, the ‘Today’ show, ‘Good Morning America,’ ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show.’ They talked about my son on ‘The View.’ It was an overnight sensation,” he said.
Lange doesn’t believes Alex’s story became a sensation because he happened to be a member of the media and had access to tell the story on-air. He doesn’t even think Alex’s story is particularly unique, but does contend it was all about timing.
“It’s a common story. There are newspapers, news outlets, TV stations that get similar calls everyday,” he said. “Obviously the health care system is mired in bad policy and driven by economics and not driven at all by the care for the human condition.
“But it happened at the apex of this health care debate. There was a critical vote in the Senate and the senator from Maine, Olympia Snow, had reversed her position and the health care reform debate gained momentum,” Lange explained. “It was timing, and it was also such a glaring example of how ludicrous health care is in this country. The thing about Alex is that insurance views him as a risk because of this statistic, when he’s actually extraordinarily healthy.”
Having worked as both a media member, as well as on the other side in public relations, Lange was not surprised that his medical insurer reconsidered Alex’s case after the scrutiny of media coverage came into play. “As a result of the national coverage, Rocky Mountain Health Plan went into crisis communications mode. They said as a result of a CDC guideline, they decided to reverse the policy regarding overweight babies.”
Lange was relieved and amazed by what had happened. “I’ve known about the power of the media because I’ve been involved for eight years, but what I learned was how something can go viral so fast, how word can spread quickly. Within a couple of days, if you Googled my son’s name, it showed up internationally.”
As a broadcaster, Lange thinks that his personal story was a benefit to viewers, and an example of advocacy journalism at its best. “Alex’s story alerted viewers to the types of issues that affect not just us, but other people,” he said. “They may have perfectly healthy families and find themselves denied health insurance coverage for bizarre loopholes and strange statistics. … The more these stories are made public, the more outrage there will be, and hopefully more influence on policy. Our story was able to influence policy.”