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RENEE MONTANGE, host:

And health insurance is one of the top issues in this year's presidential campaign. Just about every Democratic and Republican candidate has a plan to remake the nation's health care system. Question is, what kind of insurance cards do the candidates carry in their wallets?

We sent NPR's Julie Rovner to find out.

JULIE ROVNER: The original question came from a listener. Ruth Lezotte of Okemos, Michigan, wondered, with all the candidates' policy talk about health insurance, what happens when they get sick?

Ms. RUTH LEZOTTE (Resident, Okemos, Michigan): How do the candidates get their health insurance?

ROVNER: It turns out that this year, many of the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates in the race are sitting members of the U.S. House or Senate and thus, eligible for taxpayer-subsidized coverage through the federal employee health benefits plan. But not all of the presidential candidates depend on that coverage exclusively. Like many Americans over age 65, Republican Senator John McCain has a variety of health plans available to him.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Presidential Candidate): You know, I'm eligible for veterans' care because of having served in the military, and I'm most proud of that. I have the Senate Health Insurance Program, and I'm also part of my wife's supplementary insurance that she has.

ROVNER: McCain is lucky to have so many insurance options since he's a cancer survivor - he had surgery for melanoma eight years ago.

In fact, says Marilyn Moon, director of the health program for the American Institutes for Research, the federal employees program available to members of Congress really isn't all that gold-plated.

Ms. MARILYN MOON (Director of Health Program, American Institutes for Research): It's clearly a good plan; it covers all types of services that people would need, including prescription drugs, for example. But you pay co-pays and deductibles, just like most Americans who get their health care from employers.

ROVNER: But all that wasn't really what Ruth Lezotte wanted to know. She was more interested in the handful of candidates who don't have access to employer-provided coverage.

Ms. RUTH LEZOTTE: I mean, John Edwards' wife has cancer. He's not employed. Giuliani, I don't know if he's employed or not, he's had cancer. Where do these people get health insurance?

ROVNER: Actually, it turns out that Edwards does get his health coverage — and coverage for his wife, who's being treated for a recurrence of breast cancer - at work.

Mr. JOHN EDWARDS (Former Democratic Senator for North Carolina; Presidential Candidate): Our family gets our health insurance through the campaign, and it's Blue Cross.

ROVNER: Indeed, almost all the Democratic candidates offer health insurance to their campaign workers. The lone holdout, ironically, is Congressman Dennis Kucinich, who advocates the most generous tax-funded health plan of any candidate.

Representative DENNIS KUCINICH (Democrat, Ohio; Presidential Candidate): We haven't been able to do that, because, you know, we have kind of a low-budget campaign, but we're actually looking into that right now. It's something we want to do.

ROVNER: Republicans, on the other hand, are a more mixed lot. McCain and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani offer health insurance to their campaign staff; Congressman Ron Paul and Duncan Hunter don't, largely because the staff are volunteers.

As for the others - they wouldn't say. And the campaigns of Giuliani, former Senator Fred Thompson, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney wouldn't say how the candidates get their health insurance, either. Although as a resident of Massachusetts, Romney is required by the law he helped pass to at least have health coverage.

It's a shame those candidates won't talk about their own coverage, says health policy analyst Marilyn Moon. Because knowing what kind of coverage they have would help illustrate how the health-reform plans they're proposing for everyone else — plans that rely more on having individuals buy their own insurance - might or might not work.

Ms. MOON: One of the difficulties in terms of assessing these health care plans is actually illustrated by the situation of these candidates. Not all of them might qualify for good coverage under the plans that they have offered.

ROVNER: That's because Giuliani and Thompson are, like McCain, cancer survivors. And in the individual insurance market, says Moon, at least under current rules, people who have had cancer or another serious disease often can't buy health insurance at any price.

Ms. MOON: Having the money to pay for a plan is not enough. You also need to be able to get a plan if you have a history of health problems.

ROVNER: At their New Hampshire debate earlier this month, the Republican candidates all agreed that individuals need to take more responsibility for their own health care. But apparently, that doesn't extend to telling the voters how much responsibility the candidates themselves are taking.

Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: If you want some details, names of insurers and type of coverage from those candidates who responded, and also why Julie found the answers so hard to come by, go to npr.org.

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