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Doug Holtz-Eakin, Republican adviser, faces personal health insurance woes

As a federal employee in 2004, Holtz-Eakin had health insurance through his employer. But not anymore.
As a federal employee in 2004, Holtz-Eakin had health insurance through his employer. But not anymore. (Jay Carrier/bloomberg News)
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By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 2, 2009

If history had taken a different course, Doug Holtz-Eakin would be inside the McCain White House driving the Republican president's domestic agenda, including health-care reform. But now, one year after Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) lost the presidential election, the man who was by McCain's side as the campaign's top health-care guru remains unemployed -- and his COBRA health coverage is running out.

Irony of ironies, it gets worse. Holtz-Eakin, who is about to start shopping for insurance on the individual market, is 51. And he has one of those pesky "preexisting conditions" that insurance companies often cite in denying coverage.

"A right renal autotransplant," he said, pointing to his abdomen as he described the 1990 transplant surgery he went through after one of his kidneys was damaged in an accident. "They got rid of the artery, moved my kidney and rebuilt me for the 21st century. If you look at my file, any insurance company would go, 'Hmm . . .' "

Good luck.

Holtz-Eakin unraveled his woes in an interview one recent afternoon from the seventh floor of an office building on Constitution Avenue NW. Across the street was the U.S. Capitol and the stately committee rooms where Holtz-Eakin frequently testified as director of the Congressional Budget Office (2003-05). Sixteen blocks up Pennsylvania Avenue was the West Wing, where he briefed President George W. Bush and his aides as chief economist for the Council of Economic Advisers (2001-02).

But on this day, Holtz-Eakin was in a windowless office that he is temporarily occupying so he has someplace other than Starbucks to work on his laptop. On the walls of his sublet space were someone else's Ohio State University seal and someone else's beach scene prints.

"This is some guy's office. I don't know who he is," Holtz-Eakin said, turning in his swivel chair to the bookshelf. "These are his books."

At the end of the 2008 presidential campaign, when Holtz-Eakin flew home from Arizona for the final time, his job was finished. His BlackBerry stopped buzzing. Reporters stopped calling. He stared out the window of his 23rd-floor apartment in Arlington and realized, suddenly, that he had all the free time in the world.

Since then, he's kept busy offering advice, paid and pro-bono, to politicians, and writing articles, giving speeches and making appearances on cable television about health care and economic policy.

"My mother's deeply concerned that I don't have a job," joked Holtz-Eakin, a divorced father of two grown children.

Holtz-Eakin said he's been paying about $1,000 a month to extend the private health insurance he received on McCain's campaign through the government's COBRA program, but that will expire in a few months. This is the first time in his life he has not had employer-provided health coverage. "I worry about where I go next in the way many Americans do," he said.

But although Holtz-Eakin dresses the part -- on this day he wore a gray pinstripe suit, white shirt with cuff links and a powder-blue tie -- he is in no hurry to find full-time work. He said he'll get a job when he's ready, even if it means buying an individual health insurance plan at an exorbitant premium.

"Let's not whine too much about me," he said. "I'm a wealthy, affluent American in the big picture."

Despite his personal trials, however, Holtz-Eakin said his conviction on the hot-button issue of health care is unchanged. He believes that reform is needed, but that President Obama and congressional Democrats are going about it the wrong way. The system is "broken," he said, but the bills now before Congress do not cut costs enough. On the campaign trail, Holtz-Eakin promoted McCain's plan to eliminate the tax exemption for employer-sponsored health insurance and give tax credits to individuals to buy their own coverage.

Of the bills moving through Congress, Holtz-Eakin said: "I wish the policies were different, and I wish I could've somehow gotten us to a bipartisan place. I think McCain had the capacity to do that.

"But the reality is what it is," he continued. "You can't live your life in the land of what might have been."


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