CREDIT: Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters
Since the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) ruled that the government can continue to subsidize health care coverage for members of Congress who are required to enroll in the Affordable Care Act’s exchanges, a growing number of Republican lawmakers are pledging to forfeit the contribution and are voluntarily withdrawing from their federal insurance plans. The effort represents an attempt by Republicans to put their coverage where there mouths are when it comes to opposing the health care law.
In 2009, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) offered an amendment to the health care law that required lawmakers and some of their aides to drop their existing health care coverage in the Federal Health Benefits Program (FEHB) and enroll in the insurance exchanges at the core of the health law by 2014. The original Grassley amendment stipulated that Congressional employees “use their employer contribution” to buy insurance through the exchange, but that language never made its way into the final version of the law, leading leaders of both parties and President Obama himself to lobby the OPM to issue a separate rule maintaining the contribution.
The federal government currently covers approximately 75 percent of federal employees’ health care costs and will continue to do so as members and some of their aides enter the exchanges, OPM announced earlier this month. Lawmakers and their staff will not be eligible for the law’s income-based tax credits, which are awarded on a sliding scale to individuals and families between 133 percent and 400 percent of the federal poverty line.
The decision is not sitting well with Republican members of Congress. They’re arguing that it subjects Congress to special treatment, since individuals not covered by Grassley’s amendment would not be able to initially use their employers’ contributions to help pay for insurance through the exchanges.
In 2014, individuals and employees of small employers can purchase coverage through the exchanges, but by 2017, large employers may be able to offer subsidized health care through the marketplaces, if the states permit it.
“As long as ObamaCare remains law, Members of Congress should not receive exchange subsidies that are not provided to other Americans,” Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) said in a press release earlier this month. She plans to introduce The No ObamaCare Subsidies for Congress Act, to prevent Congress from accepting the government contribution, and expects strong support from the Republican caucus.
Already, Reps. Mark Meadows (R-NC) and Robert Pittenger (R-NC) have endorsed the effort, with the latter voluntarily withdrawing from health coverage altogether. Meadows added that his staff has also voluntarily declined the subsidies. And while most members of Congress may be able to afford to forfeit the government contribution — Meadows has a net worth between $1,674,034 to $12,017,998, Pittenger is worth between $18,615,005 to $48,551,997, and Capito may have a net worth of up to $2,266,995 — the push could pressure poorly-paid aides to pay for the full cost of coverage.
In 2012, staff assistants and legislative correspondents — the most common Congressional positions— earned a median pay of $30,000 and $35,000, respectively, suggesting that thousands could be forced to flee the hill rather than comply with the new effort to resist the health care law.
Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) has introduced another bill, the James Madison Congressional Accountability Act, to “prohibit the federal government from subsidizing Capitol Hill’s premiums starting next year.”