No, The Obama Administration Didn’t Just Expand Abortion Access For Congress Members And Staff

CREDIT: Michael Reynolds, EPA
CREDIT: Michael Reynolds, EPA

There’s been a lot of confusion over how Congress members and their staff will factor into Obamacare. On Monday, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) issued a final rule to help clarify the issue. But that hasn’t been the end of the conversation. Now, conservatives are claiming that OPM is breaking federal law by extending abortion coverage to lawmakers and their staff.

That’s not actually true. But if you’re utterly lost, you’re not alone. Here’s how we got here.

During the fight to get Obamacare passed, an amendment put forth by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) changed the way that members of Congress can get health care under the new law. Grassley’s amendment requires lawmakers to drop their existing health care coverage in the tax-subsidized Federal Health Benefits Program (FEHB) and enroll in the new state-level insurance exchanges created under Obamacare.

But, since the exchanges aren’t intended for people who can otherwise get health care through their employer, it wasn’t clear how that was going to work in practice. If Americans have access to employer-sponsored health insurance, Obamacare doesn’t provide any financial assistance to help them buy exchange plans. So where does that leave members of Congress and their staff under Grassley’s amendment? Would they be required to pay more for their health care because of an unnecessary GOP-sponsored amendment?


In August, OPM offered some clarification. The agency decided that lawmakers and their staff — who have typically received employer contributions to help cover the cost of their monthly premiums, just like everyone else who gets health care through their job — may use their employer contributions to help them buy exchange plans. That way, they’ll be able to adhere to the terms of Grassley’s amendment without needing to pay significantly higher prices for their health care.

That sparked an entirely unnecessary scandal over the “abortion question.” Since Obamacare’s state-level exchanges offer plans that cover abortion services, conservatives worried that lawmakers and staffers could end up buying one of those plans — even though federal employees are specifically barred from having insurance coverage for abortion. Some Republicans even suggested that OPM’s guidance on the issue was a “scheme” to finally sneak in abortion coverage for lawmakers and their staff.

And now that OPM has provided more details about how this workaround will operate, right-wing outlets continue to try to stoke that “controversy.” They claimed the finalized rule has granted members of Congress and their staff members the ability to “buy health care plans that pay for abortions, even though the premiums are funded largely by taxpayer money.”

In reality, conservatives simply didn’t read carefully enough. OPM’s guidelines specifically address this issue — making it clear that even if lawmakers or their staffers purchase an exchange plan that covers abortion services, their federal contribution will be kept separate so it doesn’t go toward that abortion coverage.

“Under OPM’s final rule, no Federal funds, including administrative funds, will be used to cover abortions or administer plans that cover abortions,” the government agency stipulated. “OPM can and will take appropriate administrative steps to ensure that the cost of any such coverage purchased by a Member of Congress or a congressional staffer from a designed SHOP is accounted for and paid by the individual rather than from a government contribution, consistent with the general prohibition on Federal funds being used for this purpose.”


At the end of the day, this an issue entirely manufactured by Republicans. If Grassley hadn’t insisted on making the health law more complicated by adding an unnecessary amendment related to members of Congress, the government wouldn’t have had to figure out a workaround. And, of course, if Republicans weren’t so obsessed with preventing taxpayer dollars from covering abortion services, it wouldn’t matter what kind of abortion coverage was available for federal employees in the first place.

But GOP lawmakers aren’t done belaboring this aspect of Obamacare implementation. House Republicans submitted a funding bill on Monday to muddy the waters even further. The new GOP proposal for funding the government would eliminate the federal assistance for Congressional employees, so they would be responsible for the entire cost of their insurance without any help from their employer.