A long-simmering dispute over how the Obama administration applied the Affordable Care Act to members of Congress and some of their staff has been revived and could hang up the confirmation of a new federal personnel chief.
In advance of the scheduled Thursday confirmation hearing for Beth Cobert to become director of the Office of Personnel Management, Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) raised the prospect of putting a hold on her nomination.
[interstitial_link url="https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/federal-eye/wp/2015/11/10/obama-wants-to-take-acting-off-beth-coberts-title-as-opm-director/"]Obama wants to take ‘acting’ off Beth Cobert’s title as OPM director[/interstitial_link]
Cobert has been OPM’s acting director since last summer, having been detailed from the Office of Management and Budget after the resignation of the prior director following disclosure of the massive cybertheft of personal information from two OPM databases. She has spent much of the time since dealing with the fallout of those breaches; the dispute over health insurance policy also predates her arrival at OPM.
[interstitial_link url="https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/federal-eye/wp/2015/07/21/opm-to-federal-agencies-we-got-hacked-but-you-have-to-help-pay-for-the-response/"]OPM to federal agencies: We got hacked, but you have to help pay for the response[/interstitial_link]
Vitter has been a leader among congressional Republicans who objected to how the administration interpreted a clause in the health-care law requiring that once the health insurance exchanges started in 2014, members of Congress and employees of their “official offices” would have to leave the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, which covers the vast majority of federal employees.
Interpretation of that provision was one of many controversial aspects of the ACA rollout, in part because the law did not define what Capitol Hill positions are within an “official office.” Nor did it address the status of the employer contribution to health insurance, which covers about 70 percent of the total cost of FEHBP premiums.
Under rules OPM issued in 2013, members of Congress designate the status of their staff positions annually for the following year. For those not eligible for the FEHBP but who enroll in a specific ACA option offered in the District, an employer contribution continues, equivalent to what FEHBP enrollees receive. The rules further specified that those forced out of the FEHBP could return to it when they retired, as long as they met standard requirements.
[interstitial_link url="https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/federal-eye/wp/2013/09/30/administration-moves-to-limit-but-not-end-health-insurance-subsidy-for-congress/"]Administration moves to limit, but not end, health insurance subsidy for Congress[/interstitial_link]
Vitter has sent several letters to OPM since then, asking for details of how that decision was reached and arguing that the rules violate the intent of the law.
He said in a statement Wednesday that “any potential OPM Director needs to explain the unnecessarily secretive process that protects Members of Congress from the burden they imposed on American citizens. Congress should be required to live under the same health care laws they imposed for the rest of the country. That’s just commonsense.”
In a letter to Cobert dated Tuesday, he again asked — “in order for your nomination to move forward” — for a full explanation of how the rules were written and the justification behind designating Congress as a small business in order for enrollees in the District-based plan to continue qualifying for an employer contribution.
“Such a subsidy is not available to other Americans who purchase their health insurance on a federal or state-based exchange as the ACA mandated. Therefore this amounts to a special exemption for Congress,” he wrote.
He added, “Should you or anyone within the Executive Office of the President wish to see the nomination move forward, I will be happy to oblige and help facilitate upon a complete and full response to the requested information now pending for over two years.”
Separately on Wednesday, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee issued a subpoena to Cobert for documents related to the computer security breaches.
“OPM, under Ms. Cobert’s leadership, is not cooperating with the Committee’s investigation,” Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), the panel’s chairman, said in a statement. “We made a commitment to the American people to ensure a hack of this nature never happens again. The documents we’ve repeatedly requested be provided to this Committee are essential to fulfilling that promise. Despite assurances of cooperation, I’m disappointed Ms. Cobert is not working in good faith with the Committee. I will use all available remedies to obtain the information needed to conduct a thorough and meaningful investigation.”
OPM said in a statement that it “has made every effort to work in good faith to respond to multiple congressional oversight requests,” including document producing tens of thousands of pages of documents, testifying at public hearings and conducting classified briefings.
“To be responsive to congressional requests, OPM has taken numerous steps to increase our previously limited capacity to respond to congressional inquiries of a large volume and sensitive nature. This includes hiring additional staff, bringing on detailees from other agencies, and obtaining document management tools that allowed the agency to respond more promptly and efficiently to Congress,” it said.