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Model for Health Coverage

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For the most part, federal employees, retirees and their family members are not among the 40 million Americans lacking health insurance. But that doesn't mean they won't be affected by the growing health care debate.

Health care policy is proving to be a more central issue in the 2008 presidential election than in the past. Former Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, a Republican candidate, told attendees of an AARP conference in February: "I would dare to say the 2008 election is going to be all about health care."

There is Iraq, of course. But, to the extent that health care is important, the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program is part of the debate. The idea of giving American people access to the same health plan as members of Congress is politically solvent. If the FEHBP is opened up to the general public, though, it could change the demographics, which could influence premiums and make managing the program costlier.

In 2006, two successful contenders for Senate seats -- Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. -- used the FEHBP model in their health care platforms. Klobuchar advocated opening the program to the uninsured and McCaskill supported using the program as a model for a new health care system for small businesses.

Putting aside Thompson and a few other exceptions, the Democratic presidential contenders have tended to focus on health care much more so far than their Republican counterparts. Some Republicans, including John McCain and Rudy Giuliani, don't even mention health care on their Web sites.

But the Democrats mostly do. And three of them -- Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Bill Richardson -- use the FEHBP in their platforms.

Richardson has the most prominent reference to the federal employee plan.

Richardson would seek to "open up existing sources of affordable, portable coverage to more Americans," his platform states. "Working families and small businesses will be able to purchase coverage through the Federal Employee Health Benefits Plan."

Under Richardson's proposal, not only would private sector employees be allowed to enter the FEHBP -- the government would help some of them pay for it. Richardson suggests "an advance refundable tax credit based on income will help families obtain coverage through the FEHBP."

According to a local New Hampshire media outlet, Foster's Online, Richardson spoke about health care in Barrington, N.H., in early May.

"Businesses and individuals should be able to get the congressional plan," Richardson said. "If you can get it for the Congress and federal government employees, you should be able to apply to the Cadillac plan that the Congress gets."

Clinton's Web site does not mention opening up the FEHBP, or any specific plan to bring the universal health care coverage she advocates. But in a March 26 town hall on ABC's television program "Good Morning America," she made it a possibility.

"I believe that one of the ways we can get health care for everyone is to open up the federal plan that's available to members of Congress," Clinton said. "That would be one way that we could say to you that you have the same right as anybody in Congress."

Obama, too, has yet to unveil a detailed health care proposal. But he is certainly familiar with the FEHBP, touting his support for health care technology in the program as a way to decrease costs. His election Web site says that "Senator Obama worked with Senator Harry Reid, D-Nev. to introduce the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program Efficiency Act to leverage the federal government's purchasing power to encourage the development of health information technology."

And according to The Des Moines Register, during Iowa campaigning in April, "Obama hinted during his later stops Thursday that his plan would likely include government assistance for some uninsured to enroll in insurance programs such as those offered to federal employees."

Watch for the FEHBP to be offered as a health care solution, especially among moderate candidates who would not go as far as a single-payer plan.

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