By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 21, 2010; B03
A problem in the new health-care overhaul law that may have inadvertently left members of Congress and some congressional staff without health insurance has been resolved, the White House said Tuesday.
The issue was highlighted in a recent Congressional Research Service report, which said a possible "drafting error" in the legislation left unclear the date by which lawmakers and certain staff members will be required to drop their existing insurance and sign up for state-run exchanges that the law will create for people who lack coverage through their jobs.
Because the exchanges don't have to be operational until 2014, that raised the possibility that lawmakers and staff members would be booted from their existing insurance, under the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program (FEHBP), without another alternative, the report said.
But the Office of Personnel Management has concluded that the section of the law forcing them into the exchanges doesn't take effect until the exchanges become operational and that no one will lose his or her insurance. "The provision . . . has no current effect upon the eligibility of Members of Congress or their staffs to participate in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program," OPM Director John Berry wrote in the letter, dated Friday and sent to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid. (D-Nev.).
The White House released the letter Tuesday. The confusion was one of several potential problems that congressional Republicans and health-care experts have raised over how the landmark legislation affects members of Congress and their staffs. The April 2 Congressional Research Service report noted, for example, that the law might create a two-tier system, with members of Congress and their personal staff members being forced into the exchanges while committee and leadership staff members would be able to keep their existing insurance.
Congressional Democrats and Republicans traded accusations Tuesday over how that provision wound up in the legislation.
Like other federal workers, the elected officials on Capitol Hill and their staffers are covered through the FEHBP. Under the health-care bill, signed into law by President Obama last month, executive branch employees can keep that insurance.
An amendment proposed in the Senate Finance Committee by Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) would have required all federal workers to sign up for the exchanges, but Grassley did not pursue it after it met fierce opposition from federal employee unions, congressional aides said.
A modified Grassley amendment to force only members of Congress -- and all congressional staff -- into the exchanges was approved by the committee in September. Grassley has said he wanted Congress to have the same insurance it was providing for other Americans.
But the final bill contained different language that the Congressional Research Service said may require only members and their personal office staff, in Washington and their district offices, to sign up for the exchanges, while staffers assigned to committees and the congressional leadership can keep the FEHBP. The vast majority of Capitol Hill staffers are assigned to personal offices, but committee and leadership staff are among the most powerful.
"Staffers who draft legislation, staff the debates and were behind closed doors merging the bills are exempt from the health-care reform they helped to pass,'' said Jill Kozeny, a spokeswoman for Grassley.
Jim Manley, a spokesman for Reid, blamed Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) for the changed wording, saying Democrats adopted "word for word" an amendment Coburn had proposed in the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. "In his rush to make political statements instead of policy achievements, Senator Coburn clearly wasn't paying attention to what he was doing," Manley said.
John Hart, a spokesman for Coburn, said Reid blocked several efforts by Coburn and Grassley to change the wording back to the Finance Committee version.
"Senator Reid was in charge of the entire process,'' he said. "At any minute, he could have walked into the room, fixed it and walked out. They're trying to blame Coburn as if he's the majority leader, and that's absurd."