October 4, 2013

Fox News host Sean Hannity appears to be correcting himself, however slightly. In past segments on Obamacare, Hannity has propagated the falsehood — which first surfaced in an April Politico story — that congressional lawmakers and staffers had exempted themselves from the president’s signature legislation. “Isn’t it just morally wrong that these guys exempt themselves from the very laws and burdens they’re placing on the rest of us?” asked Hannity in the Aug. 13 edition of his show. “Isn’t that wrong?”

The “wrong” part was the entire premise. As pointed out here and elsewhere, Congress has complied with a provision of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that lawmakers and staffers seek their health care on the exchanges/marketplaces established by the law. They’ll be kicked off of the Federal Employees Health Benefits (FEHB) program effective Dec. 31, 2013, and sprung onto the exchanges. So, no “exemption” whatsoever from Obamacare. In a proposed regulation, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has ruled that these folks may continue to receive their employer contribution for any health plans they purchase on the exchanges. To repeat: Continue. Employer contributions have been, and will continue to be, a staple of U.S. health insurance.

Having watched his exemption talking point crumble in his tendentious tendons, Hannity in a Thursday night showdown with a Democratic congressman zeroed in on the continuation of the employer contribution to the health-care premiums of Capitol Hill employees. As the transcript indicates, he couldn’t quite bring himself to take the word “exemption” from his talking points. Speaking to Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.), Hannity held forth:

If big business gets a special exemptions, do you think it is fair that individuals did not get the same exemptions and similarly, you in Congress are getting the subsidy exemptions that the rest of us aren’t getting with Obamacare. Do you think that’s fair?

Great populist flourish there. Pascrell took exception to talk of “subsidy exemptions,” insisting that there’s merely an employer contribution. In Hannity’s world, though, “subsidy” is too delicious a term, connoting big government, laziness, debt, corruption and socialism. On this program, if there’s anything that even remotely qualifies as financial assistance, you gotta call it a subsidy.

Now let’s move to the next populist moment. Background: The employer contribution to the health-care plans of lawmakers and Hill staffers averages out to 72 percent of the premiums. Hannity has a problem with that, as he made clear to Pascrell in this nasty exchange:

HANNITY: You got a 72 percent subsidy available to you.
(TALKING OVER EACH OTHER)
You know, what your problem is, Congressman? You’re an elitist.
PASCRELL: No, my problem is –
HANNITY: You think you are above the American people.
PASCRELL: No, my problem is you don’t let me finish.
HANNITY: Go ahead, finish.
PASCRELL: You have a big problem.
HANNITY: My problem is people that lie on this program. You’re not telling the truth. You’re lying to the American people.
PASCRELL: Don’t you dare call me a liar.
HANNITY: You are lying to the American people.
PASCRELL: Don’t you dare call me a liar.
HANNITY: You’re get ago 72 percent break. You’re lying to the American people.
PASCRELL: Hey, Sean.
HANNITY: Tell the people the truth.
PASCRELL: Hey, Sean. Where were you in the last six months –
HANNITY: Tell the people of this country that you have a special subsidy that they don’t have. Tell them the truth, Congressman.
PASCRELL: I don’t have a special subsidy.

Bolded text added to highlight more first-rate populism. Elitist Democratic lawmakers cutting themselves a deal that regular Americans couldn’t dream of — that’s essential “Hannity.”

Amid all the shouting, though, no one got a chance to cite the data compiled in this recent study by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. Titled “2013 Employer Health Benefits Survey,” the document delivers hard-and-fast numbers on the prevalence of employer contributions and their average levels.

Key figure No. 1: “Employer-sponsored insurance covers about 149 million nonelderly people,” or 56 percent of the non-elderly population, says the report.
Key figure No. 2: “Covered workers contribute on average 18% of the premium for single coverage and 29% of the premium for family coverage,” says the report.

With the aid of elementary-school math, employers on average contribute 82 percent of the premium for single coverage and 71 percent of the premium for family coverage. Those numbers help to contextualize the cushy “subsidy” that Hannity decried in his clash with Pascrell. Seems that the congressional employer contribution aligns with the status quo in private industry.

So whereas the Fox News host assailed a benefit that American people “don’t have,” the data tell us that, in fact, most Americans have precisely that benefit — the sort of setup that applies to lawmakers and their staff on Capitol Hill, not to mention Hannity himself, in all likelihood. If Hannity and many others really had a problem with Capitol Hill receiving the same employer contributions that the rest of us covered employees receive, then why haven’t they been crowing about it for years?

Of course, including all such relevant facts and figures would have removed the basis for yelling at the Democrat. And on “Hannity,” yelling at the Democrat is de rigueur.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.