In mid-March, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., became one of the first lawmakers to announce he had Covid-19, after testing positive for the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
He received his diagnosis promptly from congressional doctors employed by the Office of the Attending Physician, and recovered by early April. Coronavirus testing was made available early and often for members of Congress, who enjoy concierge medical services courtesy of a world-class government health clinic.
Diaz-Balart, like many other voices on Capitol Hill, has denounced increased public spending on health services as a dangerous “government takeover of healthcare.” But like every lawmaker, he enjoys gold-plated medical care from OAP, which provides on-call services at taxpayer expense — and recently got a boost in funding.
Just months before the pandemic, lawmakers hiked funding for the OAP clinic, a move that has not been previously reported. The last congressional appropriations bill, passed in December, increased the budget for the office to $3,868,000 this year. Then, in March, the CARES Act, the sweeping $2.2 trillion bailout legislation, included a special provision that appropriated an additional $400,000 to the OAP clinic as part of a package of special funds to prepare the capital for coronavirus response and hygiene.
All together, the OAP budget has increased more than 25 percent over the last decade. The move to secure the health and safety of lawmakers contrasts sharply with the policy focus of Congress, which has largely faced a stalemate over the expansion of low-cost health care services over the last decade. In the first weeks of the pandemic, few had access to the same rapid Covid-19 testing that was made available to lawmakers through the clinic.
The OAP has been described as “some of the country’s best and most efficient government-run health care.”
Lawmakers are only charged around $600 in annual fees, which covers a small fraction of the costs for OAP operations. The vast majority of the budget comes from money delegated by the federal government. Even the low flat rate isn’t necessarily required. Some lawmakers who have declined to pay the nominal fee are not turned away from the clinic, according to previous reports.
The clinic, managed by Dr. Brian Monahan, a rear admiral in the Navy, employs three doctors, a pharmacist, and over a dozen nurses and medical technicians. The clinic not only provides coronavirus testing, but routine flu vaccines, lab work, physicals, and a range of emergency treatments. Lawmakers have claimed that they use the OAP office as their primary care physician. It also also treats some medical emergencies among tourists.
Members of Congress also receive regular physical therapy care at the clinic. An on-site radiology suite provides X-rays. Specialty doctors from military hospitals routinely visit the OAP at no extra charge, while lawmakers are often referred for free outpatient care at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
In recent weeks, the OAP has played a critical role in helping lawmakers respond to the rapid spread of coronavirus. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and other lawmakers who tested positive have consulted closely with doctors from the OAP on ways in which to quarantine themselves and recover.
The office has taken the lead on producing public health policies for congressional operations during the coronavirus pandemic. A recent congressional guidance issued by OAP advises the proper use of face masks in the capital and the use of the gallery space above the House of Representatives to facilitate social distancing.
The CARES Act also provided $12 million for the Capitol Police and an additional $25 million for capital construction crews to prepare sanitation supplies for the administration of congressional buildings.
Dale Fountain, the chair of Enact Universal Healthcare for California, a single payer advocacy group, said he was disappointed to learn about Congress moving to shore up its own taxpayer-funded health care.
“Speaker Pelosi has been adamant in her rejection of single payer for everyone,” said Fountain, noting that the omnibus spending bill in December repealed three tax provisions of the Affordable Care Act while boosting the OAP.
“It has been obvious for awhile that when it comes to her own healthcare and her own projects, ‘how will we pay for it?’ was never a concern,” he added.