By Molly K. Hooper - 09/15/09 10:00 AM EDT
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.
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 ObamaBarack ObamaWhat will be in Obama’s Presidential Library Lots of (just) talk about 'draining the swamp' America’s Eastern European mess MORE 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 FlemingJohn FlemingClub for Growth: Anti-Trump spending proved to be 'good call' David Duke gets debate slot in La. Senate race Prostitution fight tightens Louisiana Senate race MORE (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 VitterDavid VitterDavid Duke gets debate slot in La. Senate race GOP senators avoid Trump questions on rigged election Trump’s implosion could cost GOP in Louisiana Senate race MORE (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 BluntRoy BluntGOP senator: 'Highly unlikely’ voter fraud sways election GOP senators avoid Trump questions on rigged election Dems, GOP bet on different strategies in race for Senate MORE’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 HellerDean HellerGOP senators avoid Trump questions on rigged election More Senate Republicans pressure Treasury over debt-equity rules Funding bill rejected as shutdown nears MORE (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 WilsonJoe WilsonA recipe for wasteful spending: South Carolina Pork with Russian Dressing GOP struggles to find women to lead House committees GOP rebuffs call to uphold Obama veto MORE (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 CoburnTom CoburnRyan calls out GOP in anti-poverty fight The Trail 2016: Words matter Ex-Sen. Coburn: I won’t challenge Trump, I’ll vote for him MORE (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 KindRon KindRyan: Pacific deal can't be fixed in time for lame-duck vote House Democrat expects support to grow for Pacific trade deal Hatch: TPP deal can get done in lame-duck session MORE (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 PastorEd PastorWhich phone do lawmakers like the most? CAMPAIGN OVERNIGHT: Political tomfoolery Pastor endorses in race to replace him MORE (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.
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.