Congress' health care waiver praised on Capitol Hill, panned elsewhere

Rep. Chris Stewart says 'it was the right thing to do'

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 7 2013 4:04 p.m. MDT

Congress included a provision in the health care law that would move members onto the Affordable Care Act exchanges, but concerns about increased insurance costs drove them to seek help from President Obama.

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Almost two weeks after Politico reported that congressional leaders were looking to get exempted from losing their coverage and having to join insurance exchanges created by President Barack Obama's health care overhaul, Republicans and Democrats are calling the president's recent intervention "a relief."

In 2009, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, proposed an amendment requiring members of Congress and their staffs to participate in the law's health care exchanges. The amendment was tweaked for the final version of the health care law, but it meant that about 11,000 members of Congress and congressional staffs would lose their current coverage.

However, because the statue was unclear about whether or not members and aides would have their premiums subsidized by their employer — the federal government — it was possible these workers would be hit with new health care costs that would perhaps drive them to find jobs elsewhere. Congress members and some higher paid staff members would not qualify for insurance subsidies, meaning they would have to pay more for insurance coverage.

According to Politico, Obama told Democrats on July 31 that he would personally resolve the matter and later, The Wall Street Journal reported, the White House agreed to suspend that portion of the law.

Regulatory details on the suspension have yet to be released, but The Wall Street Journal posited that Congress will receive extra payments "based on the (Federal Employees Health Benefits Program) defined-contribution formula, which covers about 75 percent of the cost of the average insurance plan. For 2013, that's about $4,900 for individuals and $10,000 for families."

Lawmakers — even Republicans — have said the fix was the right move and that their staff members would have suffered if it hadn't been addressed.

“There’s no question it was the right thing to do,” Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, told Roll Call. “Not just for me, but for my staff. Heavens, I have staff who don’t make much money. This would be a really big bite for them.”

The move has been met with criticism elsewhere, with The Wall Street Journal accusing the White House of "once again rewriting the law unilaterally," and Joseph Morris, a former general counsel for the Office of Personnel Management, saying the OPM "lacks statutory authority" to subsidize Congress' health plans on the exchange.

"Because he's a really great guy who has enormous empathy for Capitol Hill staffers, the president got the OPM to issue notice that Congress could continue to use federal dollars to subsidize congressional health insurance, for both staff and lawmakers, meaning they would be shielded from the financial impact of Obamacare which has everyone else's premiums sky-rocketing," Peter Roff wrote at U.S. News.

"The political class, and there are a few Republicans who answer to this description as well, think they are somehow different from you and me; that there can be a separate set of rules for them. It's getting so it resembles the old Soviet Union, where the party apparatchiks in Moscow made things available to themselves — like special lanes for their cars and limousines so they didn't have to sit in traffic like the workers did," he said.

The Los Angeles Times defended the move, saying that the law singled out Congress for a sanction that ordinary Americans do not face and that forcing congressional workers to pay more for health insurance would be tantamount to giving them a pay cut. Pay cuts can be debated, the editorial said, but should be done openly rather than through an amendment like Grassley's.

Additionally, the paper argued, although the right way to fix the exchange problem would be for Congress to address the issue, Republicans present a roadblock to just such an action, and therefore the president's involvement was the only solution.

Days before the president got involved in the debate over exchanges and insurance coverage on the Hill, other reports surfaced showing that the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents nearly 100,000 Internal Revenue Service workers, announced its opposition to a proposal to move all federal employees onto the health care exchanges. The IRS has been assigned 46 new responsibilities, ranging from tax collection to enforcing compliance under the health care law, the Galen Institute said.

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