How much did Burns’ surgery cost? 

Your right to know how your tax dollars are spent apparently stops with the health insurance you provide your U.S. senator.

Recently, Sen. Conrad Burns underwent successful colon cancer surgery. We attempted to find out what type of health insurance the taxpayers provide for the senator, what it covers, the deductible and co-payments. But public servants proved to be surprisingly unresponsive.

We received only partial answers from Burns’ press aide, J.P. Donovan, who referred us to a website (www.fepblue.org) outlining the various health care plans offered to all federal employees, including members of Congress, by Blue Cross/Blue Shield, the federal government’s health insurance company.

Burns has “Option 105,” a plan that covers him and his family, and which is outlined in a 104-page document.

Donovan would not discuss any aspect of Burns’ Plan 105, saying it was a matter of privacy. When reminded that tax expenditures are public record, Donovan still declined to discuss the fiscal details of Burns’ policy. “In this case, it should be private,” he said.

Donovan did say, however, that congressional representatives could keep their Blue Cross/Blue Shield policy if they had the policy for five years prior to retirement. Elected representatives voted out of office also may keep their policies by opting to “retire.”

Burns, 66, angered many Montanans last year when he said publicly that people who lack health insurance in Montana do so by choice. And following his own bout with cancer, he spoke of the importance of early detection. But early detection of colon cancer can be pricey. A colonoscopy, for instance, can run anywhere from $500 to more than $1,000. Donovan said Burns is aware of the high cost of early colon cancer detection, adding, “As awareness grows, prices will come down.”

According to CNN, 20 percent of Montanans have no health insurance. Nationally, about 44 million people lack health insurance. When asked what, if any, health care legislation was currently before Congress to remedy the situation, Donovan said, “There’s always something on the table for national health care,” adding that Burns was researching a bill that would protect patient privacy. “He may be signing on to that legislation,” Donovan said.

But Burns isn’t paying much attention to health care issues these days, Burns’ aide said. Rather, he’s concentrating on President Bush’s education agenda.

All that may soon change, however, with the shift in the Senate’s balance of power to Democrats following the decision of Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont to leave the Republican Party and become an Independent. That put Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) at the helm of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Kennedy has said that one of his first actions will be working to secure health insurance for the uninsured and the disabled.

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