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Transition to health care coverage under the Affordable Care Act caused major headaches for many members of Congress and their staffs last year, particularly as the issue became a major political football on Capitol Hill. But new enrollment figures from the House Chief Administrative Officer show a mostly successful effort in getting people covered.
The vast majority of all members and House staffers who tried to sign up for plans have succeeded. That includes approximately 360 members of the House and 4,200 House staffers who have enrolled for coverage in the D.C. Small Business Health Options Program exchange, according to CAO Ed Cassidy.
Only about 50 members who were part of the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program in the previous session of Congress are not currently enrolled in the District’s exchange.
Another roughly 450 House staffers who were designated as having to enroll through DC Health Link to continue receiving the government’s employer contribution have not yet enrolled.
“Although we don’t know, we suspect in most cases those are individuals who either went onto a spouse’s plan or, if they’re younger staff, perhaps went onto a parent’s plan,” Cassidy told the House Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee on March 6.
Under guidelines issued by the Office of Personnel Management, members had the option of exempting some staffers from having to enroll in the exchanges.
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., chairman of the Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee, asked Cassidy whether the CAO had been keeping tabs on the number of staffers exempted from enrolling in the exchange.
Cassidy said the CAO had “pretty carefully avoided” compiling those numbers because the office does not want the data used for “political reasons.”
At the outset of the enrollment period, the CAO made clear to payroll and benefits staff that they did not want any lists developed that showed the number of staff exemptions. Cassidy said that in most cases it was an “all or nothing” designation made by each member about his or her staff, but in some cases special exemptions were made for veteran staffers.
Cassidy agreed to make those numbers available to members of the Legislative Branch Subcommittee. The panel seemed to be in accord on the fact that they didn’t want those figures to reach a wider audience.
He commended staff from the CAO’s Payroll and Benefits Office for working “tirelessly” on nights and weekends to help a number of staffers who encountered real difficulty in enrolling in the District’s exchange plan.
In the fall, veteran staffers alleged that health insurance had become a political weapon, with their benefits being tossed around in a partisan debate about implementation of the new law. Sens. David Vitter, R-La., and Ron Johnson, R-Wis., for instance, have worked tirelessly to prohibit the federal government from contributing to staff health care costs.
DC Health Link acknowledged technical difficulties that barred some of its congressional customers from accessing the website at crucial times, including during a Dec. 5 health benefits fair for staff. Some staff members waited in line for more than two hours to use a single computer made available to attendees.
Others were warned to stay on high alert for a phishing scam that reportedly plagued the site. The scam sent members and staff trying to sign up for health insurance to a site seeking debit card numbers and personal identification numbers as identity verification.
“It’s not clear that the D.C. exchange was ready for us,” Cassidy said of DC Health Link. “It certainly wasn’t designed for such a large number of employees of a single employer, but our staff has worked closely with theirs and we’ve narrowed the number of staff who are still not enrolled to literally a dozen or two.”
On Dec. 6, with insurers and administrative staff struggling to get staffers enrolled before the Dec. 9 deadline, then-CAO Dan Strodel announced an extension. Though the open enrollment season closed Dec. 9, members and staff who could prove they tried to enroll in the District’s insurance exchange by that date but were unsuccessful in completing the process, had another chance to do so before coverage from the federal benefits program expired.
Cassidy explained that the enrollment season deadlines have been waived to help the many congressional enrollees still struggling with DC Health Link.
Figures for Senate enrollment were not available to CQ Roll Call at press time.