Political Posturing or Personal Preference? Some Lawmakers Reject Health Insurance

Fourteen freshman Republicans have turned down their health benefits.

ByABC News
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."