Health Care's a Big Issue. Who Covers Candidates?
Health insurance is turning into a top-tier issue in this year's presidential campaign. Just about every Democratic and Republican candidate has a plan to remake the nation's health-care system. But what kind of insurance cards do the candidates carry in their own wallets?
It turns out that this year, many of the Republicans and Democrats running for president are sitting members of the U.S. House or Senate — and are thus eligible for taxpayer-subsidized coverage through the Federal Employee Health Benefits Plan.
But not all of the candidates depend on that coverage exclusively. Like many Americans over age 65, Republican Sen. John McCain (AZ) has a variety of health plans available to him.
"I'm eligible for veterans' care, because of having served in the military, and I'm most proud of that," McCain said in an interview. "I have the Senate health-insurance program, and I'm also part of my wife's supplementary insurance that she has."
McCain is lucky to have so many insurance options, since he's a cancer survivor — he had surgery for melanoma eight years ago.
In fact, according to Marilyn Moon, director of the health program for the American Institutes for Research, the federal employees program available to members of Congress really isn't all that gold-plated.
"It's clearly a good plan; it covers all types of services that people would need, including prescription drugs, for example," she says. "But you pay co-pays and deductibles, just like most Americans who get their health care from employers."
Covering Staff, Too?
But what about candidates who don't have access to employer-provided coverage? Particularly those with pre-existing conditions of their own, or in their immediate families, such as the recurrence of breast cancer for which Elizabeth Edwards, wife of former Sen. John Edwards (NC), is being treated?
Actually, it turns out that Edwards does get his coverage — and coverage for his wife — at work.
"Our family gets our health insurance through the campaign," he said. "And it's Blue Cross."
Indeed, almost all the Democratic candidates offer health insurance to their campaign workers. The lone holdout, ironically, is Rep. Dennis Kucinich, who advocates the most generous tax-funded health plan of any candidate.
"We haven't been able to do that, because we have kind of a low-budget campaign, but we're actually looking into that," he said back in October. "It's something we want to do."
A Kucinich campaign spokesman confirmed that, as of January, staffers still didn't have health insurance.
Republicans, on the other hand, are a more mixed lot. McCain and former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani offer health insurance to their campaign staff; Reps. Ron Paul and Duncan Hunter don't, largely because staffers are volunteers.
Mum on Personal Coverage
As for the other GOP candidates? Their campaigns wouldn't say whether staff is covered.
And when asked how the candidates get health insurance for themselves, the campaigns of Giuliani, former Sen. Fred Thompson (TN), former Gov. Mike Huckabee (AR) and former Gov. Mitt Romney (MA) wouldn't divulge details. It's worth noting that, as a resident of Massachusetts, Romney is required by law — a law which he helped pass — to at least have health coverage.
It's a shame those candidates won't talk about their own coverage, says health policy analyst Marilyn Moon. Because knowing what kind of coverage they have would help illustrate how the health-reform plans they're proposing for everyone else — plans that rely more on having individuals buy their own insurance — might or might not work.
"One of the difficulties in terms of assessing these health-care plans is actually illustrated by the situations of some of these candidates. Not all of them might qualify for good coverage under the plans that they have offered," Moon says.
That's because Giuliani and Thompson are, like McCain, cancer survivors. And in the individual health-insurance market, says Moon, at least under current rules, people who have had cancer or another serious disease often can't buy health insurance at any price.
"Having the money to pay for a plan is not enough. You also have to be able to get a plan if you have a history of health problems," she says.
At their New Hampshire debate earlier this month, the Republican candidates all agreed that individuals need to take more responsibility for their own health care. But apparently, that doesn't extend to telling the voters how much responsibility the candidates themselves are taking.
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