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Joshua Gillin
By Joshua Gillin October 8, 2014

Democrats accuse Southerland of seeking 'health care for life'

Gwen Graham and U.S. Rep Steve Southerland are getting some help from their respective national parties in their hotly contested Panhandle Congressional district race.

To bolster Graham, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is using a new commercial to revive an old attack.

"Congressman Southerland voted himself health care for life," the Sept. 30, 2014, ad says. This claim is followed by a laundry list of actions about which the DCCC thinks voters will dislike.

Southerland’s office denied this, and when we’ve looked at this claim before, we took a dim view of such hyperbole. When a pro-Democratic group said Arkansas Republican Rep. Tom Cotton voted in favor of "taxpayer-funded health care for life," PolitiFact rated it Pants On Fire!

Let’s see how this claim fares on the Truth-O-Meter.

Law of the land

This gets a little complicated, so bear with us.

The flap stems from the fact that Congress has to abide by the terms of President Barack Obama’s signature health care law as much as you do.

Back in 2010, Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa attached an amendment to the law requiring members of Congress to obtain health insurance through the exchanges touted by the bill. Before that, lawmakers bought insurance through the Federal Employee Health Benefit Program, in which federal employees younger than 65 chose a plan and split premiums with the federal government.

This is much like the way it works for anyone with an employee-sponsored group plan -- in this case, it’s just that their employer is the U.S. government.

If Congress ever repealed Obamacare, the Federal Employee Health Benefit Program would return. And the GOP majority has been trying to repeal Obamacare for years now, voting to do away with or alter the law more than 50 times, depending on what you count.

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The commercial cites a July 11, 2012, vote on HR 6079, a repeal bill that netted a yes vote from Southerland. The congressman had plenty of other yes votes on similar bills -- his online House profile boasts that he has voted to "to repeal, replace, and defund Obamacare over 40 times." -- but the DCCC pointed to a story in The Hill about this specific instance.

"Not only are Republicans helping their insurance company donors, they’re also trying to help themselves," an unnamed Democratic official told The Hill in the July 9 article before the vote. "House Republicans are set to repeal the promise that members of Congress have health care just like everyone else and to restart the perk of lifetime government health care for themselves."

Using that for proof is dubious, as the Democrats are basically citing one of their own anonymously as a source. They are essentially laundering a Democratic talking point through a nonpartisan newspaper.

So let’s say Obamacare was magically legislated away and the old congressional system returns. Here’s the problem with the claim: Lawmakers and their aides don’t get to use the federal health plan forever.

If a politician loses an election or an aide leaves their congressional job, they will no longer be eligible for the Federal Employee Health Benefit Program. Then, when they turn 65, Medicare will take over, but a lawmaker, if they choose, can keep their current plan in order to pay for things Medicare doesn’t cover. In either case, they still have to keep paying premiums.

Meanwhile, in the real world, if a member of Congress is buying an insurance plan off an exchange, that coverage is subject to the same terms as anyone else’s policy. Again, if they don’t pay the premium, they don’t have coverage. That’s hardly guaranteeing any lawmaker lifetime health insurance.

Southerland’s office pointed out the Panama City Republican voted in favor of the House’s budget resolution in April 2014. That bill encompassed the GOP’s budget policy, actually stating in part, "Retirement benefits for Members of Congress should not include free, taxpayer-funded health care for life." It passed along party lines and was sent to the Senate, where it is stalled.

Our ruling

The DCCC says Southerland "voted himself health care for life."

This is a campaign tactic the Democrats have used before, referring to how members of Congress would get to fall back to the Federal Employee Health Benefit Program should Obamacare be repealed and its insurance marketplaces be shuttered.

This federal program doesn’t last for life, but only as long as a member of Congress or an aide works for the federal government. It also switches over to Medicare when a lawmaker still in office turns 65.

We rate this claim Pants On Fire!

Our Sources

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee campaign commercial, "Behind the Scenes," Sept. 30, 2014

The Hill, "Repealing health law would mean more benefits for members of Congress," July 9, 2012

U.S. House of Representatives, Roll Call 460, July 11, 2012

Roll Call, "Health Insurance Anxiety on Capitol Hill," April 25, 2013

PolitiFact Florida, "Pro-Democratic group says Rep. Tom Cotton voted to give lawmakers, aides taxpayer-funded health care ‘for life’," June 28, 2013

Congressional Research Service, "Health Benefits for Members of Congress and Certain Congressional Staff," Feb. 18, 2014

Washington Post, "The House has voted 54 times in four years on Obamacare. Here’s the full list.," March 21, 2014

U.S. House of Representatives, Roll Call 117, April 10, 2014, HR 6079 text, accessed Oct. 7, 2013, H.Con.Res. 96 history, accessed Oct. 7, 2014

U.S. House of Representatives, H.Con.Res. 96 text, accessed Oct. 7, 2014

U.S. Rep. Steve Southerland home page, "Health Care," accessed Oct. 7, 2014

Office of Personnel Management, "Questions and Answers -- Health Insurance Coverage: Members of Congress and Congressional Staff," accessed oct. 7, 2014

Interview with David Bergstein, DCCC spokesperson, Oct. 7, 2014

Interview with Matt McCollough, Steve Southerland spokesperson, Oct. 7, 2014

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Democrats accuse Southerland of seeking 'health care for life'

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