Reform debate draws eyes to lawmakers’ own blue-chip health insurance options

A key Democrat said he is open to changing healthcare reform legislation amid complaints of the disparity between benefits enjoyed by members of Congress and proposed coverage options for average Americans.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (Calif.) told The Hill last week that he would consider adding an amendment that would give members the option of choosing to participate in a government-run plan.

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“We’ll have to work that out, because I know that a lot of people would like that as a choice, so we’ll have to look at it,” Waxman said last week.

At town hall meetings over the August recess, many members were grilled about their own healthcare coverage. Constituents asked lawmakers if they would be participating in the new system they were creating.

President Barack Obama has also been asked about whether he — and members of Congress — would get better benefits than the average Joe.

In July, Obama said, “I’m the president of the United States, so I’ve got a doctor following me every minute. Which is why I say this is not about me. I’ve got the best healthcare in the world. I’m trying to make sure that everybody has good healthcare, and they don’t right now.”

He also said, “I have great health insurance, and so does every member of Congress.”

But as the bill is written, lawmakers wouldn’t have the choice of participating in a public option. A leadership aide explained that the public option would not be available if an employer kept providing healthcare benefits.

As the nation’s largest employer, the federal government is not likely to drop its healthcare coverage.

Now controlling the White House and Congress, Democrats have seen the tables turned after they charged Republicans with hypocrisy six years ago on the Medicare prescription drug legislation touted by President George W. Bush.

At the time, Democrats called on the GOP to ensure that the prescription drug benefits enjoyed by members would be no better than the new pharmaceutical program for seniors. While the Senate approved an amendment along those lines 93-3, it was subsequently dropped from the bill that was signed into law by Bush.

Some Republicans, including Rep. John Fleming (R-La.), have said members who vote in favor of the public option should disenroll from the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program (FEHBP) and sign up for the public plan. Fleming’s legislation on this issue has attracted 84 co-sponsors. According to

Fleming, more than 800,000 people have signed a petition on his website in support of the resolution.

Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) has introduced a similar measure.

In an interview with radio show host Michael Smerconish over the summer, Obama did not clearly endorse the notion that members should leave FEHBP and sign up for a health plan under his “health exchanges” proposal.

Obama said, “I think it would make perfect sense for us to make the public option available to federal employees, as well. But keep in mind it would just be a choice.”

It is unclear how, or if, Waxman will alter the bill’s language. In July, Waxman helped kill an amendment in the Energy and Commerce Committee requiring that members of Congress, the president and the vice president enroll in the public option.

Waxman supported the effort to quash Rep. Roy Blunt’s (R-Mo.) amendment before the committee had to vote on its content, calling the controversial measure “non-germane” because it fell under jurisdiction outside his panel.

The liberal lawmaker said, however, that he would have voted for Blunt’s measure if it were deemed germane.

The Ways and Means Committee defeated an amendment that would have bound lawmakers to go on the public option. Three Democrats voted with Republicans on that measure, offered by Rep. Dean Heller (R-Nev.).

The Education and Labor Committee included a nonbinding “sense of the House” that lawmakers who vote to create a public option should enroll in that option.

Panel Chairman George Miller (D-Calif.) noted that the amendment offered by Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) in July simply makes clear that lawmakers will have a choice whether to participate in the public plan, “just like everyone else.”

A similar measure proposed by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) was approved by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Democratic supporters of a public option explain that it would be created to give people a choice in their healthcare and will not be forced on anyone.

Therefore, members of Congress should not have to be forced to take it either, they say.

Over the recess, Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.) triggered an uproar at a town hall event when he said he was not going to enroll in the public option, emphasizing that the government-run plan was simply a choice that was available.

An angry constituent cried out, “Well, if it’s so great, then why aren’t you taking it?”

“We’re not saying it’s so great! We’re saying people want a choice,” Kind yelled over a worked-up crowd. (Kind does not participate in the medical benefits offered to federal employees. He is on his wife’s insurance plan.)

Kind’s colleague, veteran lawmaker Rep. Ed Pastor (D-Ariz.), says he too will stick with his private insurer.

“I want to make sure that my private insurer stays in business so I’ll stay with him,” said Pastor, a proponent of a public option.

Many Americans believe that members of Congress have gold-plated medical benefits only available to the elected federal officials working on Capitol Hill.

However, lawmakers have the same insurance as the more than 8 million employees working for the federal government.

Yet achieving health benefit parity between programs for lawmakers and the public would be expensive. Health experts note that the FEHBP is more generous than most insurance plans.

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The Los Angeles Times recently reported that the plan most favored by federal workers is Blue Cross Blue Shield, which covers a family for roughly $1,030 a month — $700 of which is paid for by taxpayers. Co-pays to visit a physician are $20, and generic prescriptions cost $10.

Members do have the luxury of visiting the Office of the Attending Physician, located steps from the House floor, and of receiving medical care in the military hospitals around Washington, including Bethesda Naval Hospital and Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

A GOP leadership official vowed that Republicans will continue to press Democrats on the matter.