Health care reform emerges as new Olympian challenge

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When a U.S. hockey player lays out a Canadian opponent, he need not worry about stitches, a concussion or knocked-out teeth. Unlike 46 million Americans, U.S. Olympians have health insurance.

But that doesn’t mean U.S. athletes aren’t watching as President Barack Obama meets with Congressional leadership today to push health reform.

Like other small organizations that don’t have a lot of employees to spread out the insurance risk, the United States Olympic Committee is finding that covering figure skaters and bobsledders is getting seriously expensive, says Desiree Filippone, the USOC’s director of government relations. That’s why the committee paid $40,000 to the Washington, D.C., lobby firm Monument Policy Group to keep tabs on Congressional health reform efforts and other issues in 2009.

Filippone did not say how much it costs to insure an Olympic star like Lindsey Vonn, who took a spill in the giant slalom Wednesday that required X-rays. American athletes are actually covered through the 46 individual governing bodies for various sports, she said. U.S. Figure Skating covers figure skaters. U.S.A. Curling covers the rock throwers.

“That’s not very cost effective in a lot of ways,” Filippone said, because it means higher premiums than if the groups joined together. “We are trying to figure out if there is a better way to do it. We haven’t found it.”

Monument Policy Group, the lobby company USOC hired, is run by C. Stewart Verdery, Jr., a high-power lobbyist and former Assistant Secretary for Policy and Planning at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Verdery did not return Center calls for comment.

The U.S. Olympic Committee “didn’t push for any angle at all” in the legislation, Filippone said. In 2009, the committee lobbied on issues as diverse as immigration visas and military construction. “We are nonpartisan. We had no particular political position on this one way or the other.”

A quick look at Congressional lobby records reveals that the U.S. Olympic Committee isn’t the only sports organization concerned about health reform. The National Football League Players Association and the Professional Golfers Association of America also lobbied on the issue last year.

The NFL players’ lobbyist, William Sweetnam, Jr., who was paid $30,000 to work exclusively on health reform, was foggy about what the group of well-paid athletes wanted from Congress. Players were concerned about how cash from their health reimbursement account is split in the case of divorce, he said.

PGA lobbyist Eric Winborn said the association was worried about the impact of health reform on small businesses. The PGA, he noted, represents golf pros working at local country clubs – not just multi-millionaire players like Tiger Woods .

It’s unclear what the PGA got for the $18,000 it paid Winborn to work on health reform and other issues. On Tuesday, two days before Obama’s summit, Winborn was on vacation. Golfing? Nope. Skiing in Utah.

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