Room 216 in the Hart Senate Office Building is usually the venue reserved for Supreme Court confirmation hearings and other high-profile televised grillings of government witnesses. But this week it was transformed into a health-care help center for congressional staffers confronting the reality of the Affordable Care Act.
Officials from the District’s new health-care exchange set up three computer workstations in front of the long dais, and in seats where the public and the news media usually sit, Senate aides sat and waited for help figuring out how to enroll in new health-care plans.
One described the experience as “incredibly stressful.” Some complained about the two-hour wait. Others reported that it went well.
The level of difficulty and frustration seemed to be largely dependent on staffer’s political party; a kind of political Rorschach test for aides who have listened to their bosses and the country debate the merits of the law for years. Republicans generally gripe about long wait times or getting booted off the Web site, while some Democrats boast that they will save significant sums of money as part of the exchange.
In addition to tens of thousands of congressional staffers working on Capitol Hill and at district offices across the country, more than half of the members of the Senate are joining the District’s exchange, .
With the congressional open enrollment period ending Monday, lawmakers and aides have been scrambling in recent days to create online accounts, review coverage options and make final selections. The transition to new coverage means that many lawmakers have been enduring the same problems with the enrollment process as millions of other Americans.
For years, members of the House and Senate and tens of thousands of congressional staffers have enrolled in the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program, the same health insurance program available to millions of active and retired federal employees. As members of the FEHBP, lawmakers and staffers received a taxpayer-funded employer contribution to help defray the cost of their premiums.
Changes enacted as part of the ACA require lawmakers and most congressional staffers to join the D.C. exchange to continue receiving the employer contribution. Almost immediately, some staffers found notable savings.
The office of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Henry Connelly, one of her speechwriters, will be saving $100 on his monthly premiums. He enrolled in 15 minutes.
Ben Garmisa, a spokesman for Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), said his monthly premium will drop by nearly $60. “I had more options; the plan that I selected actually will likely decrease my out-of-pocket costs. I’ve had a great experience,” he said.
But many other staffers who tried to make their final selections this week endured a glitch faced by many Americans: an inoperable Web site.
On Friday, DC Health Link officials confirmed that a scammer successfully redirected some users to a third-party Web site. And the Health Link site crashed for about an hour Thursday — just as many staffers were finishing the enrollment process or meeting in person with Health Link staffers at informational sessions. Cesar Conda, chief of staff to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), summed up frustrations with the crash almost immediately via Twitter: “Sigh,” he wrote. “I was just in the middle of signing up.”
Some House and Senate staffers initially struggled to enroll because the DC Health Link site kept telling them they were ineligible for coverage because they are not District residents. One Republican staffer for a Midwest senator described the exchange site as “in a quasi-meltdown.” His wife attempted to log on several times in recent weeks to research new plans. She was kicked off the system at least six times.
“I wonder what would have happened if we had waited until the last day to enroll in a plan or just not logged back into the system to check our enrollment status. I shudder to think about it,” the staffer said in an e-mail.
Richard Sorian, a spokesman for DC Health Link, said that “thousands” of congressional staffers have enrolled. As of Friday, half of eligible employees had completed applications, and more than one-third had chosen a health plan and completed the enrollment process. Most people applying have used the Health Link site.
Among lawmakers, at least 55 senators are enrolling for coverage through DC Health Link, said Senate aides contacted this week and local news reports.
Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.) successfully signed up Wednesday but only “after several failed attempts,” a spokesman said. An aide said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) is also joining so that “she experiences the impacts of this law the same way her staff will.”
The law permits leadership and committee aides to stay with FEHBP, leaving it up to top leaders and committee chairmen to decide what should happen to staffers. Among top leaders, only Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) is keeping his leadership aides in FEHBP while moving himself and his personal staff into the exchange. His decision has earned the ire of other lawmakers and their aides, who think that the Senate leader is shielding his top staffers from the troubles of finding new coverage.
“All I did was follow the law,” Reid said in a Nevada newspaper interview this week. “The law says that if you have committee staff, leadership staff, they stay where they are. If you have other staff, which is most everyone, they go to the exchanges.”
At least two senators, Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), are declining their employer contribution. Seven senators are also waiving the employer contribution by joining their home state’s exchange.
Four senators — Mark Begich (D-Alaska), John Hoeven (R-N.D.), Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) — also are declining their employer contribution and enrolling for coverage through the federal exchange because their home state doesn’t operate an exchange.
Two senators, John Cornyn (R-Tex.) and Timothy Kaine (D-Va.), will remain in state government health-care plans. Cornyn is a former Texas state judge and attorney general, while Kaine's wife works for the Virginia community college system. At least five senators — Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) and Ronald H. Johnson (R-Wis.) — are covered by their spouse or family’s private insurance plan.
Cruz, a lead critic of the health-care law, is covered through his wife’s employer, Goldman Sachs. A spokeswoman for Johnson said the senator doesn’t plan to use the D.C. exchange because of “the lack of security for personal information.”
Two leading critics of the health-care law, Rubio and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), had not announced their plans by Friday, while another critic, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), is joining DC Health Link.
Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) plan to continue receiving coverage via Medicare. Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) plans to split his coverage between Medicare Part A and DC Health Link.
A similar analysis of the 435 members of the House of Representatives is ongoing, but dozens of lawmakers are joining the exchange. Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Pelosi and their top leadership lieutenants will receive coverage through the District’s exchange.
At the committee level, most staffers will remain with the FEHBP. The House Budget Committee, led by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), is permitting GOP and Democratic staffers to stay with their current plans, aides said. But on the Senate Intelligence Committee, aides said Democratic staffers will stay with FEHBP while Republicans are moving to the exchange.
Among rank-and-file lawmakers, Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) said most of his staff is expecting savings of between 30 and 50 percent compared with their current plan.
“We had no problem at all,” he said. “We got onto the Web site right away, we got all of our information on there right away and I got all the information I wanted.”
But Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) had to accompany his chief of staff to a meeting with Health Link officials Wednesday to sort out problems with her enrollment, a spokesman said.
Some lawmakers plan to stay out of the public exchange because they oppose reaping a taxpayer-funded employer contribution. Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) said his staff will join the D.C. exchange, but he will continue paying out of pocket for a private insurance plan from Blue Cross Blue Shield.
“I pay a $390 monthly premium,” he said. “That’s on a plan on the private market before Obamacare that is not going to be available now because of Obamacare.”
Sean Sullivan and Lena Sun contributed to this report.