Every time someone starts talking about proposed new government programs to make health insurance available to the more than 40 million people who don’t currently have coverage, there is often a note of demagoguery about members of the House and Senate interjected into the discussion.
Lots of people — some of whom should know better — start bemoaning the "free health insurance" provided by the government to members of Congress. Simply stated, there is no such thing.
Here are the facts.
Members of the House and Senate may be seen by the office of the attending physician in the U.S. Capitol (Navy doctors on active duty) when they have a health problem while in Washington, D.C. They may be referred to Walter Reed Army Hospital or Bethesda Naval Hospital for further treatment if necessary. They are not required to use this service and may seek private medical care while in Washington if they so desire.
If House and Senate members choose to use the Capitol attending physician and the Army and Navy hospitals while in D.C., they pay an annual fee (equivalent to being part of an HMO). If they seek private medical care while in D.C. or back in their home states, they use their private health insurance. If they are over 65, they use Medicare and whatever private supplemental insurance they may carry.
And, of course, they paid into Medicare while working just like everyone else.
Members of Congress are eligible — like all other federal employees — to sign up for one of the "cafeteria" health insurance plans offered all other federal employees. If they sign up for one of these policies, the federal government pays two-thirds of the premium and the Congressman pays the other one-third. This is comparable to insurance offered by many private employers.
During the 26 years I served in Congress, I always signed up for one of the Blue Cross plans that had both deductibles and co-pays.
The family (spouse and children) of House and Senate members are not entitled to be treated by the Capitol attending physician and thus must be covered by private insurance. I always included my wife and minor children under my Blue Cross plan and paid the higher family premium.
It is legitimate to suggest that uninsured workers have the right to buy into one of the plans covering federal employees as a viable option for obtaining affordable health insurance. Since the group (all federal employees) is so large, the premiums are somewhat lower than policies offered to self-employed individuals or to the employees of small companies.
Just don’t attack members of Congress for getting "free" insurance for themselves and their families whenever the subject is raised.
While I am on the subject of things that aren’t true, let's also talk about members of Congress and Social Security. Since 1983, all members of Congress have been required to pay into Social Security just like everyone else in the country. That doesn’t stop the demagogues from stating as "fact" that Members of Congress are exempt from Social Security. It hasn’t been true for 24 years.
Members of the House and Senate legitimately can be blamed for lots of things like not ending the Iraq war fast enough and not funding the federal government by the start of the fiscal year (Oct. 1). They, however, should not be blamed for things that aren't true.
So next time your cousin, your next door neighbor, the person at church or one of the know-nothing radio talk show hosts starts criticizing elected officials for leading privileged lives and not having to pay for health insurance or Social Security, take a minute to set them straight.
Those of us lucky enough to serve in public office will take all the legitimate criticism anyone can dish out. We knew we weren't promised a rose garden when we put our name on the ballot. However, don’t give us a hard time for something that isn’t true.
Martin Frost served in Congress from 1979 to 2005, representing a diverse district in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. He served two terms as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the third-ranking leadership position for House Democrats, and two terms as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Frost serves as a regular contributor to FOX News Channel and is a partner at the law firm of Polsinelli, Shalton, Flanigan and Suelthaus. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri and a law degree from the Georgetown Law Center.