Health Insurance Anxiety on Capitol Hill
Lawmakers and congressional staff members are concerned about whether the federal government will continue to pay part of their premiums as they move to buying insurance through the exchanges next year.
The 2010 health care law (PL 111-148, PL 111-152) requires lawmakers and their personal staff to buy insurance through the exchanges, a provision originally added by Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa.
But with the exchanges scheduled to start Jan. 1, many questions remain about how the Office of Personnel Management, which manages government employees’ benefits, will implement the provision. Congressional staff members worry that the federal government will not be able to contribute money toward their premiums at the beginning — leaving them to cover 100 percent of the cost of their health premiums.
Anxiety about the requirement increased Thursday following reports that congressional leaders of both parties were holding secret meetings to try to exempt lawmakers and their staff.
A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., insisted that such conversations were not taking place.
“There are not now, have never been, nor will there ever be any discussions about exempting members of Congress or Congressional staff from Affordable Care Act provisions that apply to any employees of any other public or private employer offering health care,” the spokesman said in a statement.
Other lawmakers also criticized the reported secret meetings, with Republicans saying that rather than making themselves exempt from the law’s provisions, leaders should repeal the entire law.
“Obamacare is a train wreck,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said in a statement. “Congress shouldn’t be able to get out of Obamacare until everyone else does.”
Sen. David Vitter, R-La., introduced an amendment to an Internet sales tax bill (S 743) that would require all members of Congress and their staffs, the president, vice president and political appointees to get insurance through the exchanges.
“It’s unfair and downright arrogant for the architects of Obamacare to say, we know how bad this will be for you, so we’re leaving ourselves out,” Vitter said in a statement.
Currently, congressional staff members receive health insurance through the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, and the government covers about 75 percent of premium costs. But that may not be true once employees purchase insurance through plans offered on the exchanges.
After his provision was adopted, Grassley said employees would receive an age-adjusted contribution from the OPM to help them buy coverage in the exchanges.
But the OPM hasn’t given its interpretation for how that will work. In addition, large businesses aren’t meant to offer insurance to their employees through the exchanges until 2017, so the exchange infrastructure might not be ready to accept the federal government’s contribution next year.
It’s also unclear who exactly will be covered under the requirement, as the OPM has some leeway in determining who qualifies. Grassley intended for all lawmakers and congressional staff members to get insurance through the exchanges, but a later modification exempted leadership office and committee staff members.
“I don’t know what the motivation was in writing that piece to treat members of Congress and some employees differently,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said at a news conference. “I think that whatever the outcome is, people have to be treated the same.”
Congressional employees who have to buy insurance through the exchanges would most likely purchase it through the District of Columbia’s insurance exchange, which the district will run on its own.
An aide for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said employers would buy insurance coverage on the exchange offered by the state in which they are located and then make it available to employees.
Pelosi said congressional leaders needed to continue to look at how the requirement would work, adding that she was in contact with House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., as he had discussions about it.
Rep. John Barrow, D-Ga., wrote a letter to House Democratic and GOP leaders critical of any closed meetings on the issue.
“We may have differences of opinion about the validity of this policy, but we’ve all spent the last three years confirming the existence of this requirement to our constituents,” he wrote. “We strongly urge you to bring some transparency to this conversation and give us a chance to weigh in on any proposed revisions.”
White House spokesman Eric Schultz said members of Congress would continue to be required to buy insurance through the exchanges — but did not respond to a question about what would happen to staff members.
“Members of Congress will not receive anything that is not available to the public. The law doesn’t allow them to get insurance from FEHB, they are going to get insurance on the market place, just like individuals uninsured and small businesses,” he said in a statement.
Niels Lesniewski and Emma Dumain contributed to this report.