Obamacare Fix Avoids Financial Blow For Hill Staffers

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, pause during a Senate Finance Committee hearing on health care overhaul reform legislation on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2009 in Washington.
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Capitol Hill staffers will avoid the financial blow of a Republican-planted provision in Obamacare that was poised to significantly raise their health care costs next year and lead to disruptions in congressional offices.

A rule issued Wednesday by the Office of Personnel Management, which handles congressional compensation, says the federal government may contribute to insurance premiums for lawmakers and congressional staff who are set to be dropped from their federal health plans and must buy policies on the Affordable Care Act exchanges next year.

“These proposed regulations implement the administrative aspects of switching Members of Congress and congressional staff to their new insurance plans — the same plans available to millions of Americans through the new Exchanges,” Jon Foley, OPM’s director of planning and policy, said in a statement Wednesday.

What had been spun as an effort to seek special treatment was, in reality, a response to the provision inserted into the law by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) in an attempt to put Democrats in a predicament. If this law is so great, he argued, we should subject ourselves to it. In a surprising move, Democrats embraced the provision and included it in the law.

But the reality was less simple. Under the Grassley amendment, lawmakers and congressional staffers who work for “the official office of a Member of Congress” are the only employees of large organizations in the country who are required to buy insurance from the Obamacare marketplaces. OPM said that because there’s no statutory definition for what constitutes an “official office,” members gets to decide whether committee or leadership staffers qualify.

The Affordable Care Act doesn’t specify whether the government would be allowed to help them pay for the premiums. If not, health care costs for lawmakers and staff would soar, leading to an uneven playing field between them and other employees.

One solution would have been to enact a quick and easy legislative fix. But Republicans immediately took that off the table when the problem became public this spring and was initially portrayed in the media as an attempt by Congress to weasel out of complying with the law.

So Plan B was to push OPM to let Congress help staffers and their bosses pay for insurance on the exchanges. Facing pressure from the White House and Democratic leaders, OPM agreed, leaking word of its ruling last week and making it official Wednesday.

“The proposed regulation,” a White House aide said last week, “will provide for the implementation of the Grassley Amendment, making it clear that these employees will enroll in Marketplace plans, will not qualify for premium tax credits, and, like private sector employees, will not lose their employer contributions for these health plans. … The Administration is focused on making this law work right.”

Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) called it an “outrageous exemption for Congress” when news about the upcoming OPM decision leaked last week.

A Senate Democratic leadership aide responded that “if Senator Cornyn or others truly disagree with the ruling they are free to opt themselves and their staff out.”

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