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Hill Staff Feels Strain as Health Insurance Becomes Weapon

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
Durbin said that forcing members of Congress and staff to enter health exchanges is “a complication.”

As a nonpartisan, non-policy organization, the CMF takes no position on the provisions of the law, but the group is concerned with the management implications, and it has been reaching out to staff since August to research how changes to health care benefits could affect retention, recruitment and office morale.

“The tone that I capture from staff that I talk to is their feelings are hurt, because they feel they’re working hard and they’re already making a sacrifice by working in the public sector instead of the private sector, where they could make more money,” Fitch said. “They’re already in very difficult jobs where sometimes on the front lines they’re getting yelled at by constituents, they’re working longer hours than most people and now their health insurance benefits are being called things like a ‘special subsidy.’”

G. William Hoagland, senior vice president of the Bipartisan Policy Center and a budget expert, told CQ Roll Call that those using the congressional staff as a political football don’t comprehend the consequences for senior aides.

“I think it was never assumed at all in the law that employer-provided health insurance was going away,” Hoagland said, noting that under normal circumstances, drafting errors could be resolved by passing a technical corrections bill. That just isn’t the case here, given the political climate surrounding Obamacare.

Hoagland said his biggest concern at the moment is whether longtime congressional staffers would have to stay in the exchanges upon retirement — and lose earned federal contributions to their health insurance as a result. Hoagland said he had personally heard from senior staffers contemplating taking their retirement benefits sooner rather than later. The final OPM rule states that staffers who retire may participate in the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program if they are eligible through their previous contributions to the program.

“This can make a very big difference on whether they remain in government service,” Hoagland said. “I think it would be further damage to the institution.”

Dornatt pulled together the paperwork for her potential retirement in late spring and said her decision likely rests on the final guidance from the OPM. She said a total of five senior-level employees, a “good chunk” of Farr’s 17-person staff, are facing the same choice. “How do they plan their lives and how do they make sure that they provide for their families in terms of health care, if they don’t know what the future brings?” Dornatt asked. “I don’t have any answers right now.”

Hoagland said the situation could create a “real incentive” for senior aides to leave government service before the year’s end, saying the government risks “kind of pulling the rug out from under” people who have been in public service for decades.

Hoagland himself spent 33 years as a federal employee in both the military and civilian sectors, including 25 years as a Senate staffer.

Another House chief of staff, who spoke to CQ Roll Call on the condition of anonymity, said she once floated top-notch health insurance coverage to new recruits as an offset to the low entry-level salary in public service. She worries about what will happen if the employer contribution disappears.

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