'Americans Want What Congress Has'

August 20, 1994|By John Fairhall | John Fairhall,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- With voices as strong as their convictions, 30 advocates of universal health insurance demonstrated outside Union Station yesterday, chanting a slogan that they hoped would be heard two long blocks away -- on Capitol Hill.

"Give us what Congress gets!" hollered Silver Spring nurse Cheryl Peterson, making the point that millions of Americans don't enjoy the comprehensive health benefits that lawmakers have, mostly at taxpayer expense.

With the congressional health reform debate reaching a climax, advocates of legislation to guarantee all Americans coverage are scrambling to rally public support. Their biggest political weapon may be the seductive argument that what's good for Congress is good for other Americans.

President Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton, groups such as Consumers Union and Citizen Action, and several lawmakers have been making this point for many months, but now the campaign seems to be intensifying.

700,000 lose coverage

"Since we started this debate more than a week ago, about 700,000 Americans have lost their health insurance, but not one member of Congress has," Sen. Harris Wofford, a Pennsylvania Democrat, thundered this week.

He has threatened to introduce an amendment to strip lawmakers of their health insurance if any try to filibuster reform legislation.

The Health Care Reform Project, a coalition of private groups that sponsored the demonstration outside the train station, plans to air commercials on this theme.

The commercials will identify senators who have health insurance but who oppose universal coverage legislation.

"We did a series of focus groups in the spring, and this was far and away the most powerful message," said Charles Leonard, a spokesman for the project. "This was something people understand. The first thing they presume is if it's something Congress has, it must be good."

Members of Congress will keep their insurance no matter what action they take on reform.

Reform bills sponsored by House and Senate Democratic leaders would preserve the federal insurance program, which covers all government workers, members of Congress and the president.

Under the House bill, members of Congress would even save money.

The bill would require all employers to pay 80 percent of workers' insurance, a boon to participants in the federal plan because the government now pays less -- an average of 72 percent of premiums.

Critics resent argument

Lawmakers who oppose universal coverage legislation resent critics who try to make an issue out of congressional health benefits. Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, the GOP Senate leader, called that tactic a "cheap shot."

"It doesn't really add substance to the debate," said Ed Gillespie, a spokesman for the House Republican Conference, chaired by Rep. Dick Armey of Texas. But he acknowledged that "it does resonate" with voters.

"Anything that plays to anti-Congress sentiment in this country now resonates," he said. "But it's not a legitimate argument."

The most popular of the federal health insurance plans, the Blue Cross "standard option," covers doctor visits, hospitalization and prescription drugs.

This plan includes an annual deductible of $200, a $250 hospital inpatient deductible and a $50 deductible on drugs, after which the program pays 60 percent of prescription costs.

Family coverage costs $4,860 annually, or $405 a month. The participant pays $101, the government $304, though these figures vary slightly.

Some of the other health plans cost more, some cost less. But the government won't pay more than 75 percent of the premiums for any of them.

A model program

The federal program, which covers 9 million people, has succeeded in holding down costs, making it a model for some would-be health reformers.

Both the House and Senate Democratic bills would open up the program to millions of Americans outside the federal system, but with a catch: The program for federal workers, Congress and the president would be kept separate from the program for other Americans for several years, to protect federal participants against possible higher costs caused by sudden expansion. Federal workers' groups say this is only fair. They're plenty worried already that the reform debate is making their program a political football, which lawmakers might kick to keep constituents from complaining about Congress' benefits.

"If it trickled down to our member that makes $15,000, $20,000 a year, that would really hurt them," said Maureen Gilman, legislative director of the 150,000-member National Treasury Employees Union.

"We don't have any problems with the basic theme -- give Americans what we have," Ms. Gilman said.

The theme is so much like mom and apple pie that it's nearly impossible to object to, at least in the abstract.

Maybe that's why the demonstrators outside Union Station were so well received.

Men and women, some in wheelchairs, called out to motorists to honk if they agreed that Americans should get the same benefits Congress.

Many drivers waved and hit their horns. But it wasn't clear whether the sound was loud enough to reach Congress.

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