Survey: Congress Doesn’t Want to Dump Government Benefits

It’s not a surprise that congressional staffers are displeased at the loss of the health insurance coverage that was provided under the Federal Employee Health Benefits Plan. A survey of 15 percent of the staff of the country’s 535 members of Congress, including chiefs of staff and directors of local offices, conducted by the Congressional Management Foundation, found that a significant majority of congressional staff directors are concerned about the quality and cost of purchasing health care through the individual insurance exchanges.

Ninety percent of those interviewed said their employees are worried about changes in benefits, and 86 percent said workers were concerned about the cost. Under the Federal Employee Health Benefits Plan, the government subsidized approximately 75 percent of health care costs.

Until January 1, congressional aides — like members of Congress — qualified for coverage under the Federal Employee Health Benefits Plan. But while the health care reform was being debated, Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa proposed an amendment to the law that would only allow the government to offer members of Congress and their staff health insurance plans that are “created under” the Affordable Care Act or “offered through an Exchange.”

It was written into the bill in the first place on the theory that if Congress was going to make Americans live under the provisions of Obamacare, its members and staff should, as well. Plus, Grassley likely realized that many Americans would lose their existing coverage as a result of the health care reform. His alteration was included in the final version of the law and it bears his name: the Grassley amendment.

Then, in a rule published on September 30, the day before the launch of the individual insurance exchanges, the Office of Personnel Management decided to allow the federal government to continue to contribute to the health care costs of congressional lawmakers and their staff. At the time of the ruling, House Republicans, including Rep. Kristi Noem of South Dakota, maintained that the so-called “fix” was not an exemption.

“No matter what you hear, Congress is not exempt from going on the exchange,” Rep. Rodney Davis of Illinois told reporters from The Hill shortly after the announcement. “I have to go on the exchange in October, and I can’t even get questions answered about what it’s going to mean for my wife’s ability to continue to see her doctors as she continues her fight, her 14-year fight, to make sure colon cancer doesn’t come back.”

The rule was not an exemption in that the federal government could only make insurance plans offered through the Obamacare-created exchanges available to members of Congress and their staff.

As the ruling from the Office of Personnel Management noted, critics have asserted that members of Congress and congressional staff should “be subject to the same requirements as citizens purchasing insurance on the Exchanges, including individual responsibility for premiums and income restrictions for premium assistance.” The ruling said that nothing in the law prevents a member of Congress or their congressional staff from “declining a Government contribution.”

Of course, the fact remains that those individuals were not exactly participating in the same system and subject to the same requirements as Americans purchasing insurance through Obamacare’s individual exchanges, which is the reason why Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin launched a lawsuit.

“On Monday, Jan. 6, I am filing suit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin to make Congress live by the letter of the health-care law it imposed on the rest of America,” Johnson wrote in an op-ed published in The Wall Street Journal on January 5. “By arranging for me and other members of Congress and their staffs to receive benefits intentionally ruled out by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the administration has exceeded its legal authority.”

Johnson also believes “it is clear that this special treatment, via a ruling by the president’s Office of Personnel Management, was deliberately excluded in the law.”  The other problem, in his opinion, is that the group exceed its statutory jurisdiction and legal authority in making a ruling.

Johnson said the office had considered allowing the federal government to make an employer contribution to help Congress and its staffers to pay for insurance coverage, but that possibility was debated and rejected. “In doing so, Congress established that the only subsidy available to them would be the same income-based subsidy available to every other eligible American accessing insurance through an exchange,” he wrote in the Journal.

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