Wednesday, November 24, 2010

EDITORIAL >>Insurance that’s cheap

Andy Harris, a Maryland physician who got elected to the U. S. House of Representatives three weeks ago, struck a blow last week for the new health-insurance reform law, although it was entirely unintentional. Harris ran against and said he would vote to repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which seeks to extend health insurance to everyone.

But during a closed-door briefing for new members of Congress, Harris complained that he and members of his congressional staff would have to wait 28 days after he becomes a congressman before the health-insurance plan for federal employees would cover them. Just like other government employees, members of Congress select a private health-insurance plan from a menu of options. The health-insurance exchanges that the new insurance law will set up in 2014 for people who are uninsured are patterned on the health-insurance system for federal workers. That is the part of the new law that Republicans are asking the courts to strike down.

The congressman-elect wondered if the government couldn’t cover him and his staff under some government plan for the month until they would be eligible for benefits under one of the family plans available for government employees. That sounds eerily like the public option that he and other Republicans opposed and that was left out of the new law.

Democrats, who have been on the defensive over the Affordable Care Act for nearly two years, pounced. If all the Republicans who opposed guaranteeing everyone access to private or public insurance are to be true to their principles, the Democrats said, they should not participate in any of the federal health plans, which are relatively inexpensive because the federal government makes them available and the taxpayers subsidize them.

It is rather a good point. If government-backed insurance options are bad for other Americans, then they are bad for members of Congress, too. A letter from Democratic congressmen said it a little too forwardly but nevertheless truthfully: “Unfortunately, Republicans. . . are happy to receive care that is paid for, in part, with taxpayer funds, but do not want to extend a similar benefit to hard-working, under- or uninsured Americans.”

A national poll showed that Republicans and independents largely agreed with the Democrats on that point, though not members of their own party. Fifty-three percent of voters think the Republican opponents of insurance reform should not participate in the insurance program as a matter of principle, although the number was much higher among Republicans and independents. People who identified themselves as Democrats tended to think it was all right for the Republicans to take the benefits, even though they opposed it for other people. Go figure.

So new members of Congress were being pressed about whether they would buy the government-backed plans for themselves, their families and employees. The new Arkansas congressmen were noncommittal. Senator-elect John Boozman, his family and staff are already in the government program, but he’s still going to vote to repeal those benefits for other people.

And Tim Griffin, our representative-elect?

Griffin said he wasn’t sure, but he expected, if he’s allowed, to continue with the private insurance he buys from Humana as a member of the Army Reserve and forego the federal employees’ coverage. A man of principle finally?

Hardly. What Griffin didn’t explain was that Humana Tricare is a government-subsidized managed-care insurance plan just like Medicare Advantage or the insurance plans that government workers—and pretty much what other people will be able to buy if he and his colleagues do not succeed in repealing the Affordable Care Act. A Reservist’s individual Tricare premium is $45 a month.

Other Americans won’t get it quite as good as Congressman Griffin, but they’ll get coverage at an affordable rate if he will let them. And most of them won’t shun the protection just because the government had a hand in seeing that it was available to them.