Congressional lawmakers and their staff will be able to afford health care coverage this fall when they begin enrolling in the exchanges established under the Affordable Care Act. The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) is expected to rule that the federal government can continue contributing to the cost of health care plans purchased through an exchange, putting to end months of intense behind-the-scenes lobbying from members of both parties which culminated in President Obama assuring Democrats that he is personally involved in the issue.
The conflict arose after Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) authored an amendment requiring Congressional employees, including 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.
“My interest in having Members of Congress participate in the exchange is consistent with my long-held view that Congress should live under the same laws it passes for the rest of the country,” Grassley said in a press release at the time, hoping to force Democrats to take a vote of “no confidence” in their own law. But that’s not what happened. Democrats, led by Sen. Chuck Schumer (NY), called Grassley’s bluff and included his amendment in the final Senate bill that eventually passed.
The measure ended up on page 157 of the final law, but did not specifically mention the role of the employer contribution, leading regulators to raise concerns that the language could prohibit the federal government from contributing to the insurance costs of Congressional employees and leave poorly-paid aides responsible for the full cost of coverage. The federal government currently contributes approximately 75 percent of the tab and aides from both parties were considering leaving the government altogether, threatening a brain drain.
OPM prevented that inevitability and issued a rule that is fully consistent with the intentions of lawmakers. Grassley’s original amendment stipulated that Congressional employees “use their employer contribution” to buy insurance through the exchange and his 2011 proposal — intended to cover more staffers — also included the “employer contribution” portion.
But while regulators solved the technical policy problem, don’t expect the issue to go away any time soon. With the 2014 elections just around the corner, Republicans will surely claim that Democrats sought special treatment to exempt themselves from Obamacare, ignoring that they too lobbied for the change.