Members of Congress Have Many Health Care Options

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(Washington, DC-Capitol News Connection)
Friday, September 25, 2009

Republican Congressman Dan Lungren is happy with the benefits his employer offers.

“I like the options I have it is not inexpensive but it is the policy that suits me at this point in time.”

As a Member of Congress, Lungren is enrolled in the Federal Employees’ Benefits Program. It offers federal workers a choice of five or more private plans depending on where they live. The plans cover a range of benefits including prescription drugs and emergency care. The program is so popular that many congressional lawmakers are modeling health care proposals after it.

 “With an exchange you get real close to that.”

Democratic Congressman Mike Thompson is talking about a health care proposal that would set up an insurance exchange where consumers can purchase either a new public plan or a private plan. Thompson says it will create competition and reduce costs.

 “Every policy I don’t care if it were on the list of policies that were offered to federal employees or the ones offered to Ford employees those on the exchange would have to meet certain standards.”

The federal program has the biggest insurance pool in the country. That’s why it can keep premiums affordable and offer more choices. For an average worker, the federal government pays about 72 percent of the coverage cost. The employee picks up the rest. Jon Gable is with the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center.

 “It is not much different from the typical certainly the typical large insurance plan.”

Take for example Los Rios Community College District which employs 22 thousand people. It pays about 90 percent of the coverage cost for at least one of the three plans it offers to its workers. Gable says what sets members of Congress apart from others is their access to some of the country’s top doctors at Washington area military hospitals. They are billed for the inpatient care they receive. They also can be seen by a doctor in the U-S Capitol for an annual fee.

 “There is a conventional wisdom out there that the federal employee plans are Cadillac plans and have richer benefits than most people enjoy that is not the case.”

There are eight million federal workers who are covered under the federal program at a cost of 15 billion dollars a year. Each worker costs taxpayers about 700 to 900 dollars. Some lawmakers want to open up the program to every American. But would it be feasible to do that?

 “Of course.”

Randy Bovbjerg is a fellow at the Urban Institute in Washington DC.

“It’s just a matter of how much we’re willing to put in and pay. That’s the short answer. The longer answer is it depends doing this outside the context of employment is a little harder.” (

Bovbjerg says the federal government could face higher costs to cover people who are uninsured and unemployed.

“Because in employment for example you have the premiums automatically deducted or in the care of retirees from your pension check. That would not be available for dealing with the general public.”

Without employment contributions and an easy way to collect premiums Congress would have to decide how much it is willing to subsidize those who do not have insurance. Like Thompson, President Obama wants to offer a low cost option to the uninsured.

“I’ve insisted like a private insurance company the public insurance option will have to be self-sufficient and rely on the premiums it collects.”

Still Republicans, like Congressman Tom McClintock, oppose the public option.

 “A tax credit a tax voucher if you will a health voucher I think is a legitimate compromise but the President for bipartisan agreement which was sad.”

The public option idea has stirred up a lot of anger and mobilized conservative groups nationwide. In Washington, the latest proposal by Senate lawmakers left out the public option but liberal democrats are fighting for it. Lawmakers hope to complete a bill in the coming weeks.