The Education of Congressman-Elect Andy Harris

What does he know about health insurance?

Politico published a rather astonishing story yesterday that should make the constituents of Maryland’s first congressional district scratch their heads in wonderment. It seems that their new congressman, Andy Harris, is a bit short on the details of the U.S. health insurance system.

At an orientation for new members of Congress, Harris learned that he would not get his government-subsidized health insurance pronto, and would have to wait until February 1 for coverage to become effective. He wanted to know why it took so long, and what he would do without twenty-eight days of health care. Harris said in the meeting: “This is the only employer I’ve ever worked for where you don’t get coverage the first day you are employed.”

He also wanted to know if he could buy coverage from the government to cover the one-month gap. It seemed like he had never heard of COBRA, under which he could pay the full premium on his old employer’s policy until his new coverage takes effect. Millions of Americans do that, sometimes at great financial hardship. FYI, Congressman: COBRA has been around since 1986.

An aide to Harris tried to backpedal, saying he wasn’t being hypocritical—he was just pointing out the inefficiency of government-run health care.

Harris, it seems, is among the insurance elites. He is an anesthesiologist at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore and works at several hospitals on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. He’s lucky that he has gotten coverage from day one on a new job. Millions of other Americans have to wait. I know I waited six months in two jobs before I was covered. That was for health insurance that had nothing to do with the government. It was employer-sponsored coverage sold by commercial carriers.

Probationary periods without benefits are not uncommon, because employers want to know that new employees will work out before putting them on the insurance rolls. Others have to wait for six months, and sometimes a year if they have pre-existing health conditions. Those are not rules of government-provided health care, but of the private insurance companies that the new congressman apparently champions.

Then there’s the matter of the new provision under the reform law that allows young adults to stay on their parents’ insurance until age twenty-six. Although that provision took effect September 23, practically speaking many young people can’t get coverage until the next open enrollment period for their parents’ coverage. For many, that’s a several-month wait to comply with private insurance company rules.

There is a lot for the congressman to learn, and we hope the local press on the Eastern Shore keeps tabs on his learning curve. Although he has vowed to repeal the new health law, it would still be good if the media can help him understand the nuts and bolts of the insurance world, and how the new law fits in as he travels down that path. We kind of knew that the media were a trifle disconnected from the public. But members of Congress, too?

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Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman. Tags: , , , , ,