Political Posturing or Personal Preference? Some Lawmakers Reject Health Insurance

Fourteen freshman Republicans have turned down their health benefits.

January 20, 2011, 5:50 PM

Jan. 21, 2011— -- Several freshman Republican lawmakers are rejecting one of the most cherished benefits granted to public servants: federal health insurance. But it's not for the reason one might expect. Many from this bunch cite personal preference rather than opposition to the new health care law as their motivation.

Fourteen of the 85 new Republican lawmakers who were sworn in just weeks ago have declined federal health benefits, opting instead for alternative plans.

Like some of his colleagues, Rep. Richard Nugent, R-Fla., says he felt uneasy at the idea of taxpayers subsidizing his health benefits, even though switching over to a federal plan would have saved him about $9,000 a year.

Instead, Nugent, a former sheriff, opted to continue getting health insurance through the COBRA plan, a relatively expensive health plan that employers are required to provide for their former workers for a certain period of time.

"It has to do with just fundamental fairness," Nugent told ABC News. "This is an elected office. I just feel it shouldn't be like a career and I shouldn't be able to able to enrich myself through that, so it was just a personal choice. It had nothing to do with Obamacare."

Rep. Joe Walsh, R-Ill., another newcomer, said it was a difficult decision for him to waive his health insurance, considering his wife has a pre-existing condition, which can get costly when purchasing private coverage.

"It's been difficult," Walsh told ABC News. "What I've had to do is go out into the private individual marketplace -- my wife and I -- to find something."

The decision was made only partly because of the new health care law. Walsh pledged during his campaign that he wouldn't take federal health insurance when members were debating whether to exempt federal health insurance from the new law. But the bigger reason was his own personal philosophy.

"I didn't come here to increase the footprint of the government in any regard, so I did not like the notion of the taxpayer paying for my health insurance or any of my retirement," he said.

Rep. Bobby Schilling, R-Ill., one of the first members of Congress to announce he wouldn't take federal health insurance, told ABC News his decision stemmed from a campaign pledge he made.

"It had nothing to do with the health care law. I wanted to continue to just be myself when I got to Washington, D.C.," said the former pizza parlor owner. "I wanted to lead by example and keep the choice I like."

While it's uncommon for lawmakers, especially those in their first term, to reject health insurance offered to members of Congress, it is not a novel idea.

When Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, first came to Capitol Hill in 1993 as a member of the House, he vowed not to take the plan until every American had access to health care. Only after 18 years of serving in Congress did the now-Senator enroll in the plan for the first time in 2010, after the passage of the health care law.

"He held true to his pledge until health reform and then in November he took the health insurance that's offered to the Senate," said Lauren Kulic, Brown's press secretary. "Obviously, he wanted more than what the health reform law provided but he does feel that now all Americans have access to health insurance so he held true to his pledge."

Fourteen Freshman Lawmakers Decline Federal Health Insurance

The Federal Employees' Health Plan (FEHBP) that's offered to members of Congress works in much the same way as the insurance exchanges that the new law requires be set up by 2014. Members can compare rates and benefits and choose from a number of different options and plans that meet their needs.

FEHBP, administered by the Office of Personnel Management, is open to all active and retired federal government workers, so members of Congress can continue to take advantage of it even after they have left Washington.

Democrats have accused Republicans of hypocrisy and challenged them on more than one occasion to forego their insurance if they keep objecting to the health care law.

"If your conference wants to deny millions of Americans affordable health care, your members should walk that walk," said a letter, crafted by Rep. Jim Crowley, D-N.Y., and signed by 57 other members in November, to the Republican leadership.

Democrats tried to add an amendment to Wednesday's repeal bill, calling on members of Congress to waive their access to Congressional health care, but the motion was struck down.

Democrats say attempts by freshman lawmakers are a start, but not enough.

"I think it's a step for those folks, but their decision often times validates the concern that Democrats have with the majority of the Republican caucus, who seem to be retaining health benefits for themselves and repealing health insurance reform for the public," said Jesse Ferguson, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

The Republican leadership argues that opposition to the health care law and employer coverage are two different issues that shouldn't be mixed for political gains.

"Like tens of millions of other Americans, Speaker Boehner gets his health care through his employer," said Michael Steel, spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.

Even those Republicans who declined federal health insurance for personal reasons say attempts to connect the two are a gimmick. They say that new members of Congress can help chart a new course for future members by leading by example.

"I think everyone has the right to their individual decision and I did what made sense for my family relative to my personal health insurance. I think they are two separate and distinct issues," said Rep. Frank Guinta, R-.N.H., who gets health insurance through his wife's employer.

"I think the freshman class has come in with an objective of doing things differently and trying to be a better reflection of what constituents are asking for," he said. "But I think everyone, again, they are entitled to make their decisions based on their own reasoning. I come in with the perspective of this is the people's house."

The 14 members of Congress who have waived federal health insurance are all Republican and include Reps. Guinta; Walsh; Nugent; Schilling; Sandy Adams, R-Fla.; Bob Dold, R-Ill.; Chris Gibson, R-N.Y.; Paul Gosar, R-Ariz.; Nan Hayworth, R-.N.Y.; Bill Johnson, R-Ohio; Mike Kelly, R-Penn.; David McKinley, R-W.Va.; Scott Rigell, R-Va. and Daniel Webster, R-Fla.