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By Catharine Richert August 11, 2009

Obama is right on federal health care for janitors and senators

During a town hall meeting in Portsmouth, N.H., on Aug. 11, 2009, an audience member asked President Barack Obama why members of Congress have a different health care plan than the rest of us.

"Why have you not used the bully pulpit to chastise Congress for having two systems of health care, one for all of us and one for them," an audience member asked.

Obama answered that lawmakers get a good deal on health care, but that "their deal is no better than the janitor that cleans their offices because they are part of a federal employee plan. It is a huge pool. You've got millions of people who are part of the pool which means they have enormous leverage with the insurance companies. ... That drives down their costs, and they get a better deal."

Republican critics of the president's plan have made an issue of coverage for members of Congress, saying that lawmakers should be forced to take the public option, the most basic government-run plan under Obama's proposal. We found Newt Gingrich was largely correct that Democrats have voted against that idea.

The administration has studied the federal benefits program, which gets high marks for efficiency, to get ideas for its own health care proposal.

Obama's description of the federal plan is accurate. Under the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, federal employees and elected officials can choose from an array of plans, ranging from very basic options that have high deductibles and only carry catastrophic coverage to more expensive coverage that is more comprehensive. It is the largest employer-sponsored program in the world, covering over 9 million employees, retirees, former employees, family members and former spouses, according to the Office of Personnel Management's Web site.

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People who opt for the same package will get the same treatment, said Michael Ornstein, a spokesman for the Office of Personnel Management.

"The benefits, co-pays and deductibles are no different whether you are a career employee like myself or an elected official," he said.

For the most part, janitorial staff on Capitol Hill are federal employees, said Eva Malecki, communications officer for the Architect of the Capitol, the office involved in the day-to-day operations of the Capitol complex.

"We do have a few contract workers," she said. "But the majority are federal employees and are therefore covered by the federal employee benefits program. The custodial staff has access to the same benefits as members of Congress."

We should note that while janitors and members of Congress can choose from the same menu of plans, members of Congress generally have more money to spend on, well, anything. Many members of Congress are millionaires.

But Obama is right that lawmakers and janitors are eligible for the same benefits, deductibles and co-pays. We rate his statement True.

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Obama is right on federal health care for janitors and senators

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