Washington politicians, mostly Republicans, who are enjoying taxpayer-financed health insurance will vote to take away similar coverage for middle-class families and Medicare improvements for seniors this week amid a flurry of lies and hypocrisy unusual even by the standards of the U.S. Congress. Ohio is a case study.
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Freshman GOP congressman Bill Johnson hadn’t yet been sworn into his new job when he announced he’d turn down congressional health care benefits.
Johnson, who ran for office promising to repeal last year’s health care reform legislation, said he doesn’t think members of Congress should have “access to premium health care benefits when millions of Americans are struggling just to make ends meet.”
But Johnson isn’t going without coverage. He’s keeping his veterans insurance plan, which his spokeswoman says offers fewer choices.
Johnson is the only Ohioan among a group of incoming GOP freshman who have rejected congressional health coverage. As the House of Representatives gears up to vote on the repeal of last year’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Democrats claim it’s hypocritical for Johnson’s fellow Republicans to get congressional health care while pushing to overturn a law designed to make it easier for their constituents to get insurance.
“They want the American taxpayer to foot the bill for some of their health care, but they’ll do everything they can to make sure health insurance companies aren’t providing affordable health care for the taxpayers themselves,” says Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Jesse Ferguson.
Cory Fritz, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehnerof Ohio, says members of Congress get employer-provided health coverage [employer is the American people] like tens of millions of other Americans, and their acceptance of congressional benefits “has nothing to do with Obamacare, which will raise costs for the American people, bankrupt our government, and cause employers to drop employer-sponsored health coverage.”
Johnson, a 26-year Air Force veteran who resides in Poland, Ohio, will retain the military insurance he’s had since the early 1970s. His spokeswoman, Jessica Towhey, says the Veterans Administration offers “a lot less choice” than the smorgasbord of insurance options offered to federal employees, including members of Congress.
“Under the VA, there is no list of different plans to choose from,” says Towhey. “It is a one size fits all health care plan.”
Members of Congress are eligible for the same insurance coverage as other federal employees, and the rates, deductibles and copayments are similar to those charged for employees of large companies around the country.
For example, an Aetna HealthFund plan that offers coverage to members of Congress and their families charges the employee — including a member of Congress — a $300 monthly premium for family coverage. The government (yes, that means the taxpayers) picks up another $875.
A different plan, from Blue Cross and Blue Shield, costs the lawmaker $431 monthly for standard family coverage. The government pays another $875 toward the premium.
Spokeswomen for newly elected Ohio Republicans Jim Renacci of Wadsworth and Bob Gibbsof Lakeville — who accepted congressional insurance — say Democrats are making an apples to oranges comparison. Gibbs spokeswoman Catherine Gatewood said the individual private sector health insurance plan Gibbs signed up for through Congress costs him nearly $200 a month and “is not the result of Obamacare.”
“Like 85 percent of all Americans, federal employees, including members of Congress, could purchase health insurance through private insurers long before Obamacare was forced down our throats,” added Renacci spokeswoman Karin Davenport.
Newly elected GOP Rep. Steve Stivers of Columbus, an Ohio Army National Guardsman, said he isn’t allowed to keep his old TRICARE insurance for military reservists because he’s eligible for other federal insurance now that he’s in Congress. He said his family will get “the same benefits as other federal employees and their families.”
The Republicans’ position contrasts with that of Ohio Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown, who signed up for congressional health care benefits this year after rejecting them for 18 years.
Brown previously felt it would be inappropriate for him to get federally subsidized health insurance when so many Americans were uninsured or making do with inferior coverage. Brown dropped his protest because he feels implementation of last year’s bill would let more people buy insurance similar to what members of Congress can get. He said it bothers him that freshmen Congress members who want to repeal the law are accepting federal insurance.
“Sen. Brown believes that it’s wrong when conservative Washington politicians who are enjoying taxpayer-financed health insurance would vote to take away similar coverage for middle class families and Medicare improvements for seniors,” said his spokewoman Meghan Dubyak.
Plain Dealer Washington Bureau Chief Stephen Koff contributed to this story.