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Published: Sunday, 8/2/2009

Not quite Cadillac care

IT'S an article of faith among some in the health-care debate that members of Congress enjoy free or very cheap insurance coverage that the rest of us would, if not die for, at least kill to have.

But that is not entirely true. The coverage available to senators and representatives isn't "free," that is, the government doesn't pay the entire cost.

Steven Koff, the Cleveland Plain Dealer's Washington Bureau chief, took a look at health-care plans available to senators and representatives and concluded that while their coverage is good, some private plans are better.

Moreover, federal lawmakers must shell out co-pays, out-of-pocket prescription expenses, and other costs, which, he reported, are about the same as those paid by insured people in the private sector. According to Mike Orenstein of the Office of Personnel Management, the government picks up about 72 percent of the tab for medical premiums for federal employees, about the same as private employers who provide insurance for their workers.

A slightly different conclusion on the quality of Congress' coverage was reached by McClatchy Newspaper reporters William Douglas and Margaret Talev, who conducted their own examination of President Obama's and Congress' coverage.

Both Mr. Koff and the McClatchy team noted that federal employees have many more plans to choose from than regular Americans. That lack of choice afforded to the general public is why Sen. Sherrod Brown has chosen not to be covered by federal health insurance. But Mr. Douglas and Ms. Talev found that being a member of Congress has distinct advantages.

For example, the plans lawmakers can choose from are comparable to those offered by big corporations and better than what small businesses offer. More significantly, congressmen have access to the top-notch doctors and facilities at military hospitals (think Walter Reed and Bethesda). And, Mr. Douglas and Ms. Talev pointed out, for a small fee, lawmakers can use the convenient Office of Attending Physicians right there in the Capitol.

Of course, the President gets better care than just about anyone. According to the McClatchy report, the White House has its own medical unit, including on-site medical equipment. And the President brings a physician with him when he's on Air Force One, which has its own operating room.

The President aside, the bottom line is that congressional health coverage is neither cheaper nor more comprehensive than plans available to the general public. And the parts that are better - access to military doctors and hospitals - couldn't be offered to all 300 million Americans in any case.

This prompted us to ask a congressional staffer (who asked not to be named) why lawmakers allow the public to believe they get Cadillac insurance at Smart Car prices. He was as flabbergasted as we were.

"I guess they just [have] a bad PR machine," he said in obvious wonder. "It would have been the first thing I would have said."

Of course, there is another explanation. If congressmen had claimed their health insurance is no better than the average American's, who would have believed them?



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