Finn Bullers, Former Local Journalist, Remembered in Ames

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On Saturday afternoon at downtown music venue DG’s Tap House, friends and family of Finn Bullers, a longtime newspaper journalist-turned-disability rights advocate, gathered for “The Grand Finn-Ale,” a celebration of the former Iowa State Daily editor who died at 52 from complications of pneumonia Jan. 31 in Kansas City.

After graduating from ISU, Bullers worked at newspapers in Iowa and North Dakota, starting out at the Ames Tribune, before eventually landing a job with the Kansas City Star. He worked there for nearly 15 years until 2009, when complications from muscular dystrophy made reporting too difficult to continue.

In 2013, Bullers became an outspoken critic of Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s push to privatize Medicaid, successfully fighting against changes that limited in-home care for disabled Kansans. Dick Haws, a retired ISU journalism professor who taught Bullers and showed up at the celebration Saturday, wrote about Bullers’ fight in the Tribune shortly after his death:

They called it KanCare, and Finn was soon notified the new people wanted to do a time-use study of his need for assistance, he told me in an email. How long does he take to poop, they wanted to know? Three minutes turned out to be the answer. To shower? 12.5 minutes. To shave? four minutes.

“They tallied numbers with no accounting for set up, prep, tear down and simple monitoring if the tracheostomy would fall out.” And their decision? Finn only needed eight hours of assistance a day, not 24. Finn exploded.

He made a YouTube video in which he accused Gov. Sam Brownback of trying to kill him. He pointed out that his doctors had put into writing that he’d die without 24/7 care. He testified, he wrote letters and columns, he was interviewed by newspapers and appeared on television.

“Gov. Brownback painted a bullseye on my back,” Bullers charges in the video, embedded above, “claiming me to be a cheat, trying to scam the system — a poster boy, if you will, for Medicaid fraud and abuse in Kansas. But my only motive was to continue to breathe.”

As Gov. Terry Branstad was setting the wheels in motion to privatize Iowa’s Medicaid system, the Des Moines Register noted that two of the same companies accused of stiffing medical providers for the poor and disabled in Kansas to pad their pockets — Amerigroup and UnitedHealthcare — had been selected to manage the switch in Iowa.

A month since the transition, it’s unclear what implications privatized Medicaid will have for Iowans in need of continued care. In Kansas, Bullers was successful in his fight to get back the services he needed after the transition to KanCare, at least in part. Shortly before Bullers’ death, Steve Vockrodt, a reporter for Kansas City alt-weekly The Pitch, paid him a visit. “His life had been a cycle of living in hospitals, hotels, nursing homes, apartments,” Vockrodt later wrote. “He showed me the paperwork that his managed care organization had sent him to explain the changing nature of his care. It seemed like the MCO wasn’t sure what to do with him.”

Saturday at DG’s, Patrick Beach, who worked with Bullers at the Iowa State Daily and until recently was a reporter at the Austin American-Statesman, took the stage with his band, This Season’s Losers. Joined by others who knew Bullers, Beach sang, “I’m tired of waiting for Finn,” a nod to their late friend’s fight.

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Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.