WASHINGTON — Throughout last year's presidential campaign and this year's debate over fixing the nation's health care system, lawmakers have delivered the same refrain: That the American people deserve the same kind of health care that members of Congress get.
In reality, the 435 members of the House of Representatives, the 100 members of the Senate, and President Barack Obama get a pretty sweet deal, better than most Americans.
"Do they have better health care? A little, anyway," said Steve Ellis, the vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a government watchdog group. "They do get some things that other people don't: access to doctors; military medical facilities."
Obama and members of Congress are among the more than 8 million federal employees, retirees and dependents who get their insurance through the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, the largest employer-sponsored health insurance program in the country.
Because of its size, the program offers federal workers dozens of health plans to choose from, instead of the two or three that corporations and businesses typically offer their workers.
Like everyone else in the federal plan, what Obama and lawmakers pay depends on the level of coverage they choose. On average, the federal government pays 72 percent of the total premium.
"The federal employee plan is more generous than coverage most people have in the private sector," said Mark McClellan, a health care analyst at the Brookings Institution and a former Food and Drug Administration commissioner under President George W. Bush.
"It's probably similar to coverage that people in large established corporations get, and better than what you get if you're in a small business. It's not the creme de la creme, but it's better than what most Americans are getting."
Lawmakers also receive perks beyond the federal care offerings. For an annual fee of $503, they can receive health services from the Office of the Attending Physician, a fully staffed $2.5 million medical office located in the Capitol. It's primarily there to respond to emergency needs of lawmakers, staff, and visitors to the Capitol. Its services include acute medical care, health assessments, X-ray, lab and diagnostic services.
Lawmakers can also get medical treatment at military hospitals, including the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., where presidents get their annual check-ups, and at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.
"I would like to have that," Ellis said. "Anyone who's had to call their (health care) provider to make an appointment, that perk would be good to have."
That's not likely to happen anytime soon. McClellan said it would cost nearly $2 trillion to get Americans up to congressional-level health care.
Obama also gets in-house medical attention through the White House medical unit, which has a team of military doctors, nurses, physician assistants, medics and administrators. The unit has examination rooms, medications and medical equipment in the White House.
"It's like a mini urgent-care center," Dr. E. Connie Mariano, former President Bill Clinton's White House physician, told CNN in 2004.
The president also takes his health care on the road with him aboard Air Force One. Obama travels with a White House physician, and the presidential jet is equipped with an operating table and operating room lights in case of an emergency.
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