Health-care overhaul to shake up coverage on Capitol Hill

By Joe Davidson
Wednesday, March 24, 2010; B03

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?

"I think there is some ambiguity as to what happens upon retirement, and they may or may not retain rights at that time," said Walton Francis, a health economist who is the primary author of Checkbook's "Guide to Health Plans for Federal Employees." "As worded, however, I think the answer is 'no.' "

When members and staffers get their insurance through an exchange, they'll want to know about the risk pool. Generally, the sicker the people in a pool, the higher the insurance premiums. But Francis thinks there's no need for the politicians and congressional staffers to worry. FEHBP now includes lots of old people, who often are more prone to illness.

"My prediction is it won't be worse than the FEHBP risk pool," he said.

If members of Congress are willing to kick themselves and their staffers out of FEHBP, might they do the same to other federal employees?

Francis doesn't think moving the elected officials and their staffs from FEHBP will reduce congressional support for the program. "It will still be the case that members will respond to constituent needs, and federal employees and retirees and their dependents include 8 million constituents," he said.

OPM, the White House and the Congressional Legislative Staff Association did not respond to requests for information about the law.

It upset Mark Stone, a former Senate staffer, enough that he complained for his former colleagues.

"If Members want to subject themselves to this requirement, that's fine," he said in an e-mail to The Washington Post. "However, it seems unfair that Congress singled one group of Federal employees -- their own staff -- and require them to forfeit the coverage they currently enjoy.

"As you know, Hill staffers face grueling hours, complex issues and lower-than-average wages. Most are very young; many also have children. They have come to rely on FEHBP for their health insurance coverage. Coverage through the exchanges will likely be more costly than FEHBP. As a former Hill staffer, I am writing on their behalf.

"President Obama has said that if you like your current coverage, you can keep it. That is not the case for Hill staffers."

Staff researcher Eric Yoder contributed to this report.

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