Congress' healthy little secret

Edwin Feulner

March 04, 1992|By Edwin Feulner

DURING the January congressional recess, House Democrats hosted some 250 local "town meetings" on the subject of health-care reform.

The meetings were basically an exercise in political posturing. Congress already has an effective health-benefits system: the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program (FEHB). But what's good enough for Congress, apparently, is not good enough for the rest of the American people.

Unlike most other working people, federal employees enjoy superior health coverage. Instead of just one health-care plan to choose from, members of Congress have access to more than 300 plans of various costs. It's definitely not the kind of "one-size-fits-all" arrangement most Americans are saddled with.

For example, an unmarried employee can save money by buying a plan that excludes pregnancy benefits. Somebody who seldom gets sick might choose a plan with a higher deductible. An employee with several children might choose to enroll in a health maintenance organization (HMO) or some other managed-care program that provides a full menu of services for a fixed annual fee.

Because the companies marketing these plans -- insurance companies, unions, hospitals, HMOs and so forth -- must compete with one another for business, costs of FEHB plans have inched up slowly compared to most company plans. In other words, even in health care, consumer choice and competition work.

So why has this lesson been lost on Congress?

Instead of looking to the FEHB program as a logical reform model, Congress insists on pushing proposals that would restrict choices and drive up costs. The leader of the pack is the so-called "play or pay" plan offered by Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, D-Maine.

Mitchell's plan would require employers to either provide medical insurance or pay a new payroll tax to fund a super Medicaid program for the uninsured. Such a scheme would be x xTC nightmare. Since many employers would initially find it less expensive to pay the payroll tax than the expensive insurance premiums they're now paying, millions of working people would see their company medical plans canceled. And they'd be dumped into the expanded government Medicaid pool.

Health care may be the least appropriate area for Congress to impose a double standard: One thing for you, another for us. If Senator Mitchell and other congressional liberals think "play or pay" is the wave of the future, let them live with it, too.

But don't bet your paycheck. The Mitchell bill, which recently cleared a major hurdle when the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee approved it on a straight party-line vote, explicitly excludes Congress. They've got theirs: the FEHB program. Now they're gonna give you yours: socialized medicine.

Edwin Feulner is president of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank.

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