Congressional staff are not being stripped of their health care benefits and pushed into the Obamacare insurance exchanges, according to the regulations published by the Office of Personnel Management, the human resources agency for federal employees.
The Affordable Care Act mandates that staff working directly for the "official office" of lawmakers in the House or Senate be pushed onto health insurance exchanges created by Obamacare. However, the lawmakers themselves are allowed by OPM to exempt any or all staff members from the exchanges. Exemption would allow staffers to keep the insurance they now get through the Federal Employees' Health Benefits Program.
The rules for how House and Senate members had to deal with Obamacare changes were sent to each office in October and copies were obtained by the Washington Examiner. A House committee aide familiar with the process confirmed the information.
Leaders in both parties told their members to decide for themselves by the end of October how their staff are classified and where they would get insurance.
Three of the top four congressional leaders — House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio; House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.; and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., have pushed all of their aides — those working in their personal and leadership offices — onto the healthcare exchanges.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., following the strictest interpretation of the Affordable Care Act, moved only aides who work in his own office onto the exchanges. Aides in Reid's leadership office will be allowed to keep their current insurance.
The Obamacare provision was intended to exempt all committee and leadership staff. But some members, including the law's harshest critics, are opting to exempt their entire staff from the exchanges.
Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Texas, won't push any of his staff onto the health care insurance exchanges. Stockman, a Tea Party-aligned lawmaker, said his staff voted to reject a transition to Obamacare. The congressman, however, said Democrats should be forced to enroll in the program since they are such strong supporters of it.
“We will not use taxpayer money to bail out a program that subsidizes abortion,” Stockman said, referring to the D.C. insurance exchange. “Obamacare is a failing Ponzi scheme that can only work if it overcharges young people and denies care to older people. Obamacare is not health care and we shouldn’t bail it out with tax dollars.”
Though staff can be exempted from Obamacare, lawmakers themselves can not. They are required to join an exchange.
Congressional staff who compared prices on the Washington, D.C., Obamacare exchange found that buying the same coverage they have now could cost them more out of pocket, even with their employer provided contribution. The statute denies federal Obamacare subsidies for congressional staff who would otherwise qualify based on their income, although OPM has determined that staff can retain their employer health care contribution. Lawmakers also are ineligible for government subsidies.
Some Republicans also wanted to strip staff of their employer-provided contribution if they buy insurance on an exchange, but they were barred by law from taking the contribution away from their employees.
The employer-provided health care contribution for staff runs as high as $426 a month for an individual and $948 for a family plan. But where staffers' current insurance charges flat fees for families, the D.C. exchange charges families on a potentially more expensive per-person basis. One plan available on the D.C. exchange charges families for each of their first three children.
Lawmakers had four options in deciding which staff should be pushed onto the exchanges and which would be allowed to keep their current insurance. They could force all staff members onto the exchanges or allow all of them to continue using the insurance plan they have now. They also could split their staffs, pushing some onto exchanges while exempting others. Lawmakers also could choose to do nothing.
If a lawmakers opts to do nothing, OPM regulations would require that office staff paid through a lawmaker's office funds shift to the exchanges. Staff paid with other funds, such as committee staffs, would be allowed to keep their current insurance.
“Individual members or their designees are in the best position to determine which staff work in the official office of each member. Accordingly, OPM will leave those determinations to the members or their designees,” reads the letter sent to House members. “Nothing in this regulation limits a member’s authority to delegate to the House or Senate Administrative Offices the member’s decision about the proper designation of his or her staff.”