Thursday, September 24, 2009

Congs' health care need not be superior to ours -- Sept. 24, 2009 column


A reader in Alabama fired off an e-mail telling me in no uncertain terms that he’s against the federal government meddling in his health care and his future Medicare.

“P.S.,” he wrote, members of Congress “work for us, why should they have health care that is superior to ours?”

Good point. It is unfair for taxpayers who are suffering in the recession, losing their health insurance along with their jobs, to have to pay for Congress’ generous benefits, including health care. A survey by Rasmussen Reports in July found that 78 percent of voters said every American should be allowed to purchase the same health-insurance plan that members of Congress have.

And that brings us to a basic contradiction in the national debate over health-care reform.

Many who demand that Uncle Sam keep his hands off their health care also want access to what essentially is a government-run plan. To be sure, members of Congress have private insurance, not a “single-payer” system as in Canada or Great Britain, and their health care isn’t free. But it comes through a government pipeline. As for Medicare, which most seniors wouldn’t trade for love nor money, it of course is also run by the government.

Critics of reform warn that insurance exchanges like the one Congress participates in are the first step on a slippery slope to a government takeover of health care. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., challenged his fellow congressmen to confront their hypocrisy.

“When I listen to the hysterical descriptions of what is in this legislation, I would remind many members to look at themselves in the mirror. Because what they are presently entitled to as members of Congress is exactly what this legislation is proposing to create for all Americans,” Courtney said in the education and labor committee in July. He repeated his message on the House floor.

President Barack Obama is trying to make good on his campaign pledge to create a system of competing, federally approved private insurance policies as well as a public plan through which individuals and small businesses could purchase health insurance. The public plan now is in doubt, but the insurance exchanges are in House and Senate bills.

As the Senate Finance Committee plowed through more than 500 amendments to the reform bill proposed by chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., I looked into congressional health care. This information comes from the Congressional Research Service, Web sites of members of Congress, and other sources.

Many people think that senators and House members have their own special Cadillac health plan. Not so. Congress is under the same Federal Employees’ Health Benefits Program that covers all federal workers with the same rules and benefits. (Members of Congress pay an extra annual fee for services of the Capitol physician, and they’re eligible for free outpatient medical care in military treatment facilities in the capital region.)

The insurance purchasing exchange offers about 300 private insurance plans. Health insurance companies compete and submit bids to the government. All plans cover a range of benefits, including hospital, surgical, physician, mental health, prescriptions, emergency care and “catastrophic” care. About 8 million federal workers, including members of Congress, and their families participate. Each worker has about a dozen options, depending on where he lives.

The government pays up to 75 percent of the average premium with employees picking up no less than 25 percent. This is comparable to workers in private industry. Employees of private companies pay an average of 27 percent of the premium cost for family coverage, according to a new report by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

For more details about the federal health plan, check out the U.S. Office of Personnel Management site,

In a Q&A on his Web site, Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., tackles a question on many minds: Will members of Congress be covered under the new health plan or will they retain their current benefits?

The answer to both questions is yes, the sort of squishy response that drives citizens wild. Cardin explains, however, that Congress will be covered under health-care reform, but since the bills allow people to keep their current health care, members of Congress will be able to stay on the federal employees’ plan.

The question is whether the politicians will give the people they work for a similar choice.

(Marsha Mercer is an independent columnist writing in Washington, D.C. You can contact her at

© 2009 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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