Exemptions for congressional staff in ‘Obamacare,’ or hyprocisy?

In this campaign ad for his Senate run, Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) says that politicians should not have a place in controlling health care. (YouTube: Cassidy Press)

“[As a doctor,] I saw that when politicians and bureaucrats control health care, your health care suffers.  Politicians know this.  So some in Congress exempted staff from Obamacare.  It’s good enough for us but not for them — that’s what’s wrong with Washington.”

–Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), candidate for U.S. Senate, in a campaign ad

In this ad, Rep. Cassidy–dressed in a physician’s white coat– decries what he suggests is a special “exemption” from Obamacare for staff members in Congress. But is he engaging in a bit of hypocrisy?

The Facts

This is a complicated issue which we have explored before, but we will try to keep it simple. The health-care law requires members of Congress and at least some staffers to leave the Federal Employees Health Benefit Program (FEHBP) and join the health-care exchanges.

That was easier said than done, in large part because congressional employees previously had received a stipend to help pay for health-insurance premiums, whereas they generally make too much to qualify for subsidies in the exchanges. The exchanges, after all, were intended for people who previously did not get employer-provided insurance, while lawmakers and their staffs previously had about 70 percent of their insurance premiums underwritten by the federal government through the FEHBP. For lawmakers and their staffs, the loss of employer contributions would have amounted to an unintended pay cut of between $5,000 to $10,000.

So a system was jury-rigged by the Obama administration, using the D.C. small-business exchange (SHOP), to allow for continued health-care stipends from the federal government.

The ad suggests that it is discussing the continued stipend. It flashes a Wall Street Journal headline about “Congress’s ObamaCare Exemption,” which is over an editorial about these payments. Cassidy in September wrote an opinion article for The Hill newspaper titled “No congressional Obamacare exemptions,” which decried the workaround crafted by the administration. And of course Cassidy in the ad talks about how Congress “exempted staff” from the law.

The irony—or the possible hypocrisy—is that Cassidy’s staff benefits from these subsidies through the D.C. exchange, though Cassidy says he donates the equivalent of the subsidy to charity. But a spokesman for Cassidy says the ad is not about the subsidy, but instead a different issue—whether committee staff can be designated as remaining in the FEHBP.

Though no names are mentioned, Cassidy’s target appears to be the incumbent Democratic senator, Mary Landrieu (D), who permitted her staff on the Small Business committee to remain in the federal system. (Landrieu purchased her own insurance on the Louisiana exchange, meaning she qualified for no subsidy, according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune.)

As we have written before, this is a complex subject, in part because the law was inartfully worded, and lawmakers themselves have reached different decisions.  The administrative guidance from the Office of Personnel Management appeared to have left the decision up to individual lawmakers, but some, including Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who wrote one of the original amendments to put members and staff on the exchanges, say the law is clear and committee and leadership staff should remain in the FEHBP system.

Interestingly, since Cassidy’s ad keeps the target generic, he could also be complaining about GOP colleagues like Grassley who made the same decision as Landrieu.

The Pinocchio Test

This is less of a hypocritical ad than one of confusion, given that it appears to be talking about one thing (the subsidies) when in fact Cassidy is addressing the more narrow issue of whether all congressional staff went onto the exchanges.

In doing so, he tries to claim that members of Congress purposely tried to exclude staff members from Obamacare because they knew the level of care would be poor. But the legislative history of this provision shows the reasons were more prosaic— poor drafting and confusing language in the original law. But at least Cassidy kept it civil and did not try to make this a direct assault on Landrieu.

Two Pinocchios

 


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Glenn Kessler has reported on domestic and foreign policy for more than three decades. He would like your help in keeping an eye on public figures. Send him statements to fact check by emailing him, tweeting at him, or sending him a message on Facebook.
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