Special Health Care for Congress: Lawmakers' Health Care Perks

Special Health Care for Congress: Lawmakers Health Care Perks

This fall while members of Congress toil in the U.S. Capitol, working to decide how or even whether to reform the country's health care system, one floor below them an elaborate Navy medical clinic -- described by those who have seen it as something akin to a modern community hospital -- will be standing by, on-call and ready to provide Congress with some of the country's best and most efficient government-run health care.

Formally called the Office of the Attending Physician, the clinic -- and at least six satellite offices it supports -- bills its mission as one of emergency preparedness and public health. Each day, it stands ready to handle medical emergencies, biological attacks and the occasional fainting tourist visiting Capitol Hill.

Officially, the office acknowledges these types of services, including providing physicals to Capitol police officers and offering flu shots to congressional staffers. But what is rarely discussed outside the halls of Congress is the office's other role -- providing a wealth of primary care medical services to senators, representatives and Supreme Court justices.

Through interviews with former employees and members of Congress, as well as extensive document searches, ABC News has learned new details about the services offered by the Office of Attending Physician to members of Congress over the past few years, from regular visits by a consulting chiropractor to on-site physical therapy.

"A member walked in and was generally walked right back into a physician's office. They get good care. They are not rushed. They are examined thoroughly," said Eduardo Balbona, an internist in Jacksonville, Fla., who worked as a staff physician in the OAP from 1993 to 1995.

"You have time to spend to get to know your patients and think about them and really think about how you preserve their health going forward," Balbona said. "We're not there to put on Band-Aids. We were there to make sure that everything possible that could be done [is done] to preserve that member of Congress."

Office of the Attending Physician Services

Services offered by the Office of the Attending Physician include physicals and routine examinations, on-site X-rays and lab work, physical therapy and referrals to medical specialists from military hospitals and private medical practices. According to congressional budget records, the office is staffed by at least four Navy doctors as well as at least a dozen medical and X-ray technicians, nurses and a pharmacist.

Sources said when specialists are needed, they are brought to the Capitol, often at no charge to members of Congress.

"If you had, for example, prostate cancer, you would go to one of the centers of excellence for the country, which would be Johns Hopkins. If you had coronary artery disease, we would engage specialists at the Cleveland Clinic. You would go to the best care in the country. And, for the most part, nobody asked what your insurance was," Balbona said.

In addition to Balbona, several former staff members and private physicians who have consulted at the OAP as recently as last year agreed to talk to ABC News on background. They described a culture centered on meeting the needs and whims of members of Congress, with almost no concern for cost.

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