A question about health benefits, posed by Representative-elect Andy Harris during a private orientation session for new House members, blew up Tuesday into the first mini-flap of the Maryland Republican's budding Washington career.
It was an unwelcome lesson for Harris in the ways of the polarized nation's capital, where a closed-door meeting is no guarantee of secrecy, especially when a couple of hundred people are present.
During a briefing Monday on employee benefits for new congressmen, staff aides and family members, Harris wanted to know why he would have to wait a month for his new health insurance coverage to start.
"This is the only employer I've ever worked for where you don't get coverage the first day you are employed," Harris said, according to his spokeswoman, Anna Nix. She was quoted by Politico, the Capitol Hill newspaper that broke the story.
What helped make the exchange irresistible for Washington reporters was Harris's background as a physician, his recent arrival on the scene and his strong opposition to the new health care law, which he'd like to see repealed. In fact, the new law really had little to do with the episode, which Harris presumably hopes will blow over before more people start paying attention.
Harris was not available for comment Tuesday. After the story began taking off on the Internet, he canceled a previously scheduled interview with The Baltimore Sun. His spokeswoman explained in an email that "Andy's orientation schedule got changed around today."
Speaking to WBAL-TV on Tuesday, Harris said he asked about the start date "because every member is obviously going to have to think about how they align the health insurance they have now to their new health insurance."
Harris said he was not talking about himself.
"Not my family," he told the Baltimore television station. "I have insurance, and I have the ability to have insurance. But for anyone else who gets a job — and again, the irony that the federal government would go to the American people and our employers and say you have to provide insurance — and yet our federal employees get hired, and if they don't get hired on the right day of the month, they actually have to go without health care for awhile."
The initial Politico report, which the newspaper attributed to an unnamed congressional staffer, said the Baltimore County Republican "surprised fellow freshmen" by "demanding" the insurance information, and reacted "incredulously" when told he couldn't get coverage starting Jan. 3, when the new Congress is to be sworn in.
In fact, the health insurance plan at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, where Harris has worked since the 1980s, does cover employees from the first day of employment. That provision makes the Hopkins plan more generous than most, including the Federal Employees Health Benefits plan, which starts covering new members of Congress and their families about a month after they enroll.
According to Politico, when Harris, a married father of five, learned he wouldn't get health insurance from Day One, he asked the two women who were conducting the benefits briefing if he could purchase coverage from the government to fill the gap, according to Politico.
The concept reminded the paper's anonymous source of the "public option that [Harris] denounced as a gateway to socialized medicine" during the debate over the 2010 health care overhaul law that Harris opposes.
The public option referred to a low-cost government health insurance plan, favored by liberals and not included in the new law, rather than a mechanism for filling a short coverage gap. An existing federal program, under a 1985 law known as COBRA, permits Americans to maintain coverage after leaving a job.
Millions of people are familiar with COBRA, including those who lost jobs in the recession. For a politician, knowing facts of everyday life — such as the price of a gallon of milk or the way to obtain insurance between jobs — is a form of protection against the charge of being out of touch.
Harris may have seemed particularly vulnerable on the health care front, given his background as a doctor and 12-year career as a lawmaker.
"As the only physician in the Maryland state Senate, I know how legislatures approach health care issues," Harris wrote in an op-ed article last year for the Daily Times of Salisbury. "Politicians are usually tone-deaf to those who know the most about the issue: patients and their health care providers."
By stubbing his toe on a health care question, Harris also left himself open to partisan assault. One of the first salvos came from the camp of Democratic Rep. Frank Kratovil, himself the target of relentless attacks from the opposition party after his election two years ago. This month, Harris soundly defeated Kratovil in the district that covers the Eastern Shore and portions of Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Harford counties.
"Despite railing against the evils of government-subsidized health care for the last two years, Andy Harris chose to introduce himself on the national stage yesterday by demanding earlier access to his taxpayer-subsidized government health care benefits, and expressing shock that he would instead be treated like all other federal employees in having to wait 30 days for his coverage to kick in," Kratovil aide Kevin Lawlor said in an email. "It has taken Rep.-Elect Harris less than two weeks to start grabbing national headlines for his arrogance and sense of entitlement."