The Washington Post

GOP bill would force federal workers onto health-care exchanges

A new Republican House proposal would push federal workers off their employer-sponsored health plan and onto the insurance exchanges being established under the Affordable Care Act.

Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, introduced the bill Friday after talk on the Hill that Democrats were trying to exempt members of Congress and their staffs from a provision in current law that requires them to enroll in the exchanges in 2014.

Camp’s measure would extend that policy to all federal workers except active-duty military members and postal workers.

“If the Obamacare exchanges are good enough for the hardworking Americans and small businesses the law claims to help, then they should be good enough for the president, vice president, Congress and federal employees,” said Camp spokeswoman Sarah Swinehart.

Most employees who would be affected by the proposal are enrolled in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program.

Labor groups that represent federal workers oppose the Camp proposal.

“It seems to be a political gimmick to help lawmakers undo an amendment to the Affordable Care Act that was meant to be a poison pill,” said American Federation of Government Employees President J. David Cox. “Federal employees rely on FEHBP during their working lives and in retirement, and Congress should not play around with eliminating this crucial element of federal compensation to make a political point.”

The National Treasury Employees Union also spoke out against the bill. “The primary purpose of enacting the Affordable Care Act was to provide a marketplace for the sale and purchase of health insurance for those who do not have such coverage — not to take coverage away from employees who already receive it through their employers,” said NTEU President Colleen M. Kelley. “This legislation would put federal employees in a special class and prohibit them from receiving health insurance from their employer.”

The Affordable Care Act establishes insurance exchanges for people whose employers do not provide coverage. The requirement for members of Congress and their employees came about as lawmakers were debating the health-care overhaul four years ago.

Republicans at the time insisted that the law should force members of Congress, the president and their staffs to take part in the exchanges. Democrats conceded to a related amendment from Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), but critics argue that the provision was misguided because the Affordable Care Act allows private-sector workers to continue using their existing coverage.

As the law stands, members of Congress and their employees have to switch to the exchanges in 2014. Camp’s bill would extend that policy to the federal workforce, with exceptions applying to active-duty military and postal personnel.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) opposes the Camp bill, indicating that the measure will have little support from congressional Democrats. “There is no need to kick over 2 million federal employees off their insurance plans in order to satisfy the cynical political urges of House Republicans, who have voted to repeal this law over 30 times,” said Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill.

Lawmakers in recent weeks have questioned whether the exchange provision in the existing health-care law prohibits the government from paying a portion of premiums as it does now for members of Congress and their staffs. They have expressed concern that some workers could not afford the full cost of coverage on their own.

Lawmakers have also questioned whether congressional staffers would lose the retirement health benefits they qualify for after working for the government for 20 years. The Office of Personnel Management, which oversees the federal-worker benefits programs, has not indicated when it might provide guidance on those issues.

Democrats have denied any plans to exempt lawmakers and their staffs from the requirement to enroll in exchanges next year. “There is no effort to exempt anyone from the law,” Hammill said. “We’re hopeful that the spirit of the Grassley language can be honored with administrative action.”

Josh Hicks covers Maryland politics and government. He previously anchored the Post’s Federal Eye blog, focusing on federal accountability and workforce issues.

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