COMMITTED TO THE CAUSE
Ohio Senator Still Awaiting Universal Health Coverage
Friday, December 7, 2007
Even a U.S. senator can feel the pain of rising health-care costs -- if he tries.
When Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) first campaigned for a U.S. House seat in 1992, he decided to show solidarity with would-be constituents by pledging not to sign up for government-subsidized health insurance for members of Congress until lawmakers had guaranteed all Americans access to health care.
Back then, as now, overhauling the health-care system was front and center on the national agenda, with the Democratic presidential campaign featuring big promises about making health coverage affordable and universal.
Years later, Brown, an advocate of a single-payer system that he likens to Medicare for all, is still waiting.
"Truth be told, I thought that we would pass some real universal health care in the next two years," Brown said. "I didn't think it was going to be a 15-year-long or two-decade-long commitment."
For much of that time, Brown, who served 14 years in the House before winning a Senate seat last year, did what millions of others without employer-sponsored coverage do: He bought a policy on the individual market. Those policies tend to be less comprehensive and more expensive than plans whose premiums are funded mostly by employers.
Brown declined to disclose how much his annual premiums were but said the coverage did not really kick in until after a $5,000 annual deductible. As a result, for many years the lawmaker paid out of his own pocket for health care. Even when he visited the House doctor for flu shots or physicals -- a perk not enjoyed by constituents -- he covered the cost with his own cash.
Brown did draw on the insurance policy at least once, in January 2000. One Sunday morning while driving to church with a daughter, the congressman hit a patch of ice and slammed into a tree stump. Brown broke his back, pelvis and several ribs, landing him in the hospital for two weeks and keeping him home in a rented hospital bed for a while after that.
After he paid the $5,000 deductible, the insurance picked up 80 percent of the rest, Brown said, but the painful ordeal still cost him $12,000 to $13,000. His daughter, covered by his policy, was uninjured, but Brown had to pay out of pocket for her emergency-room examination.
Asked if the accident made him regret the pledge, Brown said, "No, I had made the commitment, and I just still lived with it."
Brown has better coverage now. In 2004, he married Connie Schultz, a columnist at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and joined her insurance plan. When Schultz took a temporary leave while Brown ran for Senate, the couple had to pay the full premium for the plan.
About 47 million people in the United States lacked health insurance in 2006, according to recent Census figures. The average annual premium for employer-sponsored family coverage is now $12,106. And since 2001, premiums for family coverage have gone up 78 percent, while wages have risen 19 percent, according to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.
Brown's pledge is a "meaningful gesture," said Gail Shearer, director of health policy analysis for Consumers Union, because lawmakers are generally shielded from the hardships that many ordinary Americans endure to get and keep health insurance.
"If Congress were to pass a law tomorrow eliminating federal employee benefits for members of Congress, it would be a wake-up call and it would be likely to lead to renewed interest in solving the problem," Shearer said.
Brown said he is optimistic that Congress can make "major progress" over the next year or two, and he is still hoping for universal coverage.
"I'm not judging my colleagues for what plan they are on," he said. "I just think that everybody in this country should have better health care than many get to have. Maybe in some sense, it gave me some incentive to work on real health reform for people. . . . I just think that if we [lawmakers] get an option for a good health plan, the public ought to have the same option."