Aide: Congressional leaders consulting on health law’s effects on legislators, Hill staffers

April 25, 2013

Congressional leaders are discussing how to mitigate the potential effects of a section of the 2010 health-care law that could cost lawmakers and their employees subsidies for health insurance, an aide said.

The Affordable Care Act included a provision requiring members of Congress and their staffs to obtain insurance from online marketplaces set to open in 2014. The exchanges will sell insurance to Americans who don’t have health-care coverage from their employers.

The congressional requirement was an amendment by a Republican, Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, who opposed the law and wanted Congress to experience its effects.

Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner, said Thursday that the Ohio Republican “will not sneak any language into bills” to lift the requirement. “The speaker would like to see resolution of this problem, along with the other nightmares created by Washington Democrats’ health law, which is why he supports full repeal,” Steel said in an e-mail.

Talks are continuing between Boehner’s office and the office of Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) on the issue, a congressional aide said. The discussions were first reported by Politico.

The Office of Personnel Management, which administers health plans for members of Congress and their staffs, must interpret the provision applying to Congress and issue regulations to implement it.

“Members of Congress will not receive anything that is not available to the public,” a White House spokesman, Eric Schultz, said in an e-mail. “They are going to get insurance on the marketplace, just like individuals [who are] uninsured and small businesses.”

The law is unclear about how coverage of members of Congress and their staffs should be treated. A 145-word passage says that “the only health plans that the federal government may make available to members of Congress and congressional staff” are those created by the law or offered in “an exchange” created by the law.

The provision defines “congressional staff” as people “employed by the official office of a member of Congress,” which may exclude employees of congressional committees and other workers at the Capitol who aren’t directly employed by lawmakers.

The congressional aide, who asked not to be identified because the discussions aren’t public, said the talks were preliminary.

Discussions are confined, for now, to identifying ways to ensure staffers aren’t put at a disadvantage compared with others if OPM rules that they must enroll in an exchange, the aide said.

Much like other Americans who have health coverage through their jobs, congressional staff receive a subsidy for their premiums, paid by their employer — the federal government. If they have to enter the exchanges, they may have to give up that employer subsidy, although low- and middle-income staff could be eligible for tax credits administered by the exchanges.

The federal government’s subsidy for its employees’ health plans amounts to as much as 75 percent of the monthly premium. That’s comparable to the subsidies received by employees of large U.S. companies that offer health insurance, according to a February report by the Congressional Research Service.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) isn’t involved in the talks and won’t support legislation to change the law for Congress, said his spokesman, Don Stewart. McConnell “does not support, and is not involved in drafting, legislation that would do special favors for Congress when his constituents are still facing the increased premiums and taxes, the mountains of red tape, the loss of health care plans they like and want to keep,” Stewart said in an e-mail.

Reid’s and Boehner’s staffs
haven’t decided what to do if OPM interprets the law to require congressional staff to enter exchanges without their federal subsidy, the aide said.

— Bloomberg News

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