Health-care overhaul to shake up coverage on Capitol Hill

President Obama celebrated the passage of the health-care reform bill on Tuesday, but some federal workers may not be in a celebratory mood.
President Obama celebrated the passage of the health-care reform bill on Tuesday, but some federal workers may not be in a celebratory mood. (Gerald Herbert/associated Press)
By Joe Davidson
Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Shortly after President Obama signed a ground-breaking law that promises major changes to the nation's health insurance system, he said -- as he has many times before -- that those who want to keep the insurance they have may do so.

"So what works in our system won't change," he told a victory celebration at the Interior Department on Tuesday. "And a lot of people are happy with the health care that they've got, and that won't change because of this legislation."

Not so fast, Mr. President.

When members of Congress approved the legislation, they excluded two groups of federal employees -- themselves and their staffs.

Like other federal workers, the elected officials on Capitol Hill and their staffers now have insurance through the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program. But even if they are happy now, this new law will make them change.

The law, wordy as all are, says "the only health plans that the Federal Government may make available to Members of Congress and congressional staff with respect to their service as a Member of Congress or congressional staff shall be health plans" that are offered by the health insurance exchanges, or markets, created by the law or other plans that the law establishes.

It defines congressional staff as "all full-time and part-time employees employed by the official office of a Member of Congress, whether in Washington, DC or outside of Washington, DC."

That means many Hill employees, such as those with the Congressional Budget Office, the Library of Congress, the Capitol Police, the maintenance departments and others, can keep their insurance through FEHBP. Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) said "official office" of a member also does not include committees that have their own staffs.

Lots of issues about this provision were not immediately clear, including when it will be implemented. An official with the Senate office that deals with pay and benefits for staffers said the office is "anxiously awaiting" guidance from the Office of Personnel Management. "We have not received that yet."

Questions abound.

Uncle Sam now pays about 70 percent of the premium for federal workers. Will they get that same subsidy through an exchange?

Currently, federal employees with at least five years of service can take their FEHBP insurance plan, along with the subsidy Sam provides, into retirement. Will they be able to do that with an exchange plan? And what happens to the workers who now are nearing retirement?

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