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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.”

Confused and frustrated by the fact that her health insurance is now a political weapon, Rochelle Dornatt is on the verge of ending her 32-year career on Capitol Hill.

The partisan political debate over her health insurance is threatening to send the chief of staff for 11-term Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., and many other senior-level congressional staffers out the door.

“There’s a lot of chatter among chiefs of staff,” Dornatt said Monday, including at least eight from California’s 53-member House delegation, “who are ready to leave if this doesn’t turn out right.”

The health care law colloquially known as Obamacare states that starting in 2014, members of Congress and their staffs can no longer get their health insurance through the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, as they have in the past. Unlike other federal workers, who can continue coverage under FEHBP plans, congressional staffers will be forced to get coverage through the exchanges established under the law.

“Remember we said when we got in the health care debate: If you have health insurance and you like it, you don’t have to change — well, there was one asterisk next to that: the Grassley amendment,” Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., said in reference to an amendment by Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, that compelled members and their staff to enter the exchanges, even though the exchanges were envisioned primarily for people who did not have insurance through an employer already.

“Members of Congress and their staff have to change by law, and so we’re going to be in the health insurance exchanges,” Durbin said. “Fine with me. Talked it over with my wife, we’ll be covered, no question about it, but it is a complication. It is different than virtually any other group of people or individual going into the state insurance exchanges.”

Those exchanges open Tuesday, but House and Senate officials have encouraged staffers to defer signing up — leaving less than three months until the Jan. 1 deadline for coverage and a plethora of questions.

The Office of Personnel Management only issued guidelines for members and staffers signing up for the exchanges on Monday. The OPM’s rule states that for members and their staffs to receive the government’s employer contribution, they must register in the D.C. Small Business Health Options Program exchange beginning in November.

The health insurance drama, combined with potential government shutdown furloughs, “really tears at the fabric of employer-employee relations on Capitol Hill,” said Brad Fitch, president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation.

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