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Watchdog group seeks probe of special health insurance perks offered only to Congress

Lawmakers and staff are prohibited from accepting anything valued at $50 or more from anyone outside of the federal government. (Photo: Thinkstock)

An ethics watchdog group wants Congress to investigate whether concierge-style health insurance perks offered to lawmakers and staff violate the congressional gift ban.

The Washington-based Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, or CREW, sent letters to the House and Senate ethics committees on Wednesday calling for a probe following a New York Times report about Congress receiving special health care services from insurers that are not available to average Americans.

The special services include help navigating the insurance exchanges, a greater number of health plans from which to choose or help in avoiding having to join an insurance exchange at all.

"At a time when so many Americans are struggling to make sense of their options under the Affordable Care Act, it is simply stunning that members of Congress failed to recognize that accepting special assistance from insurance companies in sorting out their own health insurance choices clearly violates the gift rule, creates and appearance of impropriety and reflects discreditably upon the House," CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan wrote to the ethics committees.

The gift ban prohibits lawmakers and staff from accepting anything valued at $50 or more by anyone outside of the federal government. The ban include services and training.

The District of Columbia's health care exchange, D.C. Health Link, set up shop on Capitol Hill to help people sign up and gave lawmakers and staff a special help hotline they can call if they have problems with the exchanges.

Congress also is offered special health insurance plans not available to the public, and some staff are being allowed to remain in the Federal Employee Health Benefits program by lawmakers who declare them nonofficial employees, the paper reported. Employees deemed official must join the Obamacare exchanges.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform panel, exempted his entire staff from having to join the exchanges.

CREW said it wants the House ethics panel to investigate Issa's move to avoid the exchanges, which Sloan said "clearly does not reflect creditably upon the House."

The House and Senate ethics panels are bipartisan and made up entirely of lawmakers.

In the Senate, outside groups are allowed to request investigations, but that is not the rule in the House, where only a sitting member or a vote of Congress can trigger an official probe.

The independent Office of Congressional Ethics, headed by former Reps. Porter Goss, R-Conn., and David Skaggs, D-Ohio, also can request an ethics investigation in the House.

The ethics office investigates outside complaints and forwards recommendations to the House panel on whether lawmakers should open a case.