WASHINGTON - When President Obama said at a recent news conference that he has the best health care in the world, he wasn't exaggerating.
A White House medical unit with a staff of four doctors and even more nurses and physicians' assistants is just steps from his office, ready to provide free treatment to him and his family.
During his travels, a doctor and nurse ride in a limousine in his motorcade, and there is an emergency medical technician in an ambulance.
Air Force One is stocked with equipment to rapidly assemble an onboard operating room. On overseas trips, two medical teams usually travel with the president, one on the plane and one pre-positioned on the ground so that the president always has a "rested" doctor and nurse at the ready.
The first family receives VIP treatment at military hospitals. And Obama has virtually instant access to medical specialists that few, if any, Americans could duplicate.
"If the president comes to us this morning with a mole on his cheek, a dermatologist will be seeing him today," said Rob Darling, a retired Navy captain who was a White House physician for President Bill Clinton.
White House doctors provide free medical coverage for the first family and the vice president's family, as well as urgent treatment to White House staff and visitors as needed.
During the Clinton administration, a White House doctor and nurse typically traveled with Hillary Rodham Clinton when she went overseas separately from the president, though she did not have a medical team embedded in her everyday entourage as the president did, Darling said.
A White House spokesman declined to describe current arrangements for Michelle Obama.
The personal doctors and access to military hospitals come atop a choice of 10 family health-insurance options Obama receives along with all other federal employees.
White House spokesman Reid Cherlin declined to identify which insurance plan the Obamas had chosen. But under the federal Blue Cross Blue Shield plan - the most popular among government employees - a doctor's visit costs $20, generic drugs $10.
The U.S. government contributes an average of $764 a month toward premiums for federal workers who get family coverage, while employees contribute an average of $357 per month, said Helen Darling, president of the National Business Group on Health and no relation to the former White House doctor.
At military hospitals, the president is not typically charged for outpatient care, said a White House official who declined to be identified. The president's insurance carrier is generally billed for inpatient care, though the hospital's commander has authority to waive the fees if the administrative expense of applying for reimbursement would exceed the payment to the hospital, the official said.
When the president's insurance carrier is billed, he is responsible for co-pays and deductibles, the official said.
Cherlin said Obama is pushing to overhaul the health-care system because "he'd like every American to have access to the same high-quality care that's available to government officials and staff."
Much of the extraordinary medical support provided to the first family is related to protecting them if an attack occurs. The doctor and nurse who travel with the president's motorcade are positioned just outside the "kill zone," as close to him as possible while still far enough away to be likely to survive a bomb blast targeting the presidential limousine.
White House physicians, all of them military doctors with combat training, undergo a year of additional training once they are selected for a White House post, including drilling with the Secret Service on responding to myriad mishaps.
The White House doctors see their role as mirroring the Secret Service in assuring "the continuity of government" in the broadest sense, protecting the nation's leader against not only an assassination attempt but also incapacitation through heart attack, cancer, or other medical condition, said Rob Darling.
But the doctors who treat the president, he added, are highly conscious of providing a level of care that will free him as much as possible from any medical worries.
After Bill Clinton had surgery for a torn tendon in his knee, a doctor and a physical therapist supervised his physical-therapy sessions in his private gym at the White House twice a day for more than a month.
"That was the most rehabilitated knee in the history of mankind," Darling said. "The purpose was he had to get back to the business of the people."
While Clinton had to make a 20 percent co-payment for his knee surgery, his entire therapy program was free, according to The White House Physician: A History from Washington to George W. Bush by Ludwig Deppisch.
The current director of the White House medical unit, Navy Capt. Jeffrey Kuhlman, is a doctor and has a master's in public health. He is board-certified in three specialties, including family medicine.
But just as important as the in-house staff is the roster of specialists the president's physician can call upon.