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Health Bill May Exempt Leadership Aides

While most staffers will soon be required to purchase insurance plans created in the health care reform bill, their colleagues who work in leadership and committee offices may be off the hook.

A provision of the act — which President Barack Obama signed into law Tuesday — requires only that “Members of Congress and congressional staff” have access to health care options created in the legislation. But the bill defines staff as employees who work in a Member’s “official office,” a term that does not appear to include staffers in committee and leadership offices.

The disparity angers Republican Members and staffers, who argue that Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and other Senate leaders deliberately excluded their own staff from legislation that would narrow their choices for health care.

“During Senator Reid’s closed-door writing of the bill, leadership and committee staff exempted themselves from the reforms, which had been applied to members of Congress and their staffs,” Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said in a statement Tuesday. “Congressional leaders let the carve out stand. It’s an inexcuseable double standard.”

Democratic leadership aides pointed out Tuesday that the language applies to both Democratic and Republican staffers and was originally suggested by Republican Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.). And while Reid spokesman Jim Manley conceded that the provision excludes committee staff from the requirement, he denied that it definitively excludes leadership staff. “As far as the Senate is concerned, ‘leadership staff’ are not technically considered to be committee staff,” he said.

Currently, all Members and staffers get their health care plans under the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, which offers hundreds of different health care plans to millions of government employees. Experts consider it a good deal: The government pays a majority of an employee’s premium, and stiff competition among insurance companies ensures the program’s negotiation power.

Lawmakers and their staff may face narrower choices under the reform bill, which requires the federal government to offer them only health plans that are either created under the act or offered through an exchange established under the act. That means staffers may have to buy their insurance in exchanges that are run by the states and include insurance companies that have met certain federal standards.

But a significant number of staffers may get to keep their current plan, if a recent Congressional Research Service memo is correct in speculating that the reform act excludes leadership and committee staffers from the requirement. More than 160 staffers work in just the leadership offices of Reid, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), according to LegiStorm, which tracks Congressional salaries. The exception could also extend to the rest of leadership and to the dozens of committees in the House and Senate.

The saga began last year, when Republicans were railing against a possible public option and thus pushed Congress to apply such controversial programs to itself. But the final provision was inserted last fall, when Reid merged two reform bills: one from the Finance Committee and one from the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Each included language requiring that Members and Congressional staffers enter into the health plans created by the bill.

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