Obamacare required members of Congress to enroll in the law’s health insurance plans. But so far, Republicans aren’t planning to require lawmakers to participate in the new insurance market they’re proposing.
In fact, no one really knows where lawmakers are going to have to get their health insurance under repeal.
“I haven’t given thought to that,” House Speaker Paul Ryan told reporters on Thursday. “We have Obamacare. We wouldn’t have Obamacare” if Congress moves ahead with repeal.
Health insurance for members of Congress — and their staffs — was one of the most contentious inside-the-Beltway fights in the long, drawn-out battle over Obamacare. Lawmakers were stripped of the health insurance that other federal employees get and tossed into Obamacare, initially without a contribution from their employer, the federal government — thanks to a Republican amendment introduced by Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley.
The Obama administration did allow lawmakers and staffers to get part of their insurance paid for by the government — a contribution that conservative critics blasted as an insider deal.
Under repeal, Republicans are facing an equally thorny political problem. They can put themselves back in the federal employees’ health plan. But that would likely cue attack ads from Democrats who will say the GOP are repealing and replacing their own Obamacare — and giving themselves employer-provided health care — while putting at risk the coverage of 24 million Americans.
Or they can toss themselves into the individual insurance market they’re going to create — with or without a government contribution.
Despite the prickly political problem — let alone the question of their own benefits — many lawmakers say they haven’t given thought to the matter.
“We haven’t even debated or discussed that,” said Energy and Commerce Chairman Greg Walden. “If we fix the market, we’ll benefit from that fix in the sense you’ll have more options and more alternatives and lower premiums and lower prices. I think it’s a good thing for members of Congress to be in that swimming pool with the rest of America.”
Grassley told POLITICO that if he is allowed to amend the repeal bill in the Senate, he is considering requiring that the law “apply Obamacare replacement changes to Congress, staff and the White House.”
“Congress ought to be held to the same set of standards as everyone else,” Grassley said. “That’s especially true when laws remake a system and introduce expense and uncertainty, as we saw with Obamacare.”
Grassley argues that then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid changed the amendment he offered back when Obamacare was being debated to exempt some congressional staff and the White House.
During seven years of debate over Obamacare, some lawmakers turned their Obamacare coverage into a badge of honor to make their political point, whether in support of or opposition to the law.
Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas), rejected the government contribution available in the D.C. exchange to buy coverage back home in the Texas exchange — a move some other conservatives emulated to make sure they were on a plan available to their constituents.
“Signing up for a bronze plan on the Texas exchange is the most miserable experience I’ve ever been through in my life,” he told reporters, adding that he has a $6,000 deductible.
But Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) said during the Energy and Commerce Committee’s 27-hour legislative session on the repeal bill that she had no complaints about her coverage. “If it’s good enough for us, it should be good enough for our constituents,” she said.
The issue became contentious, even outside the Beltway. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) even sued unsuccessfully over the Office of Personnel Management decision to allow the federal government to pay for part of the lawmakers’ and staffers’ health insurance.
Democrats say the GOP lawmakers would be hypocritical if they don’t put themselves into the new insurance market they hope to create.
“Of course it’s hypocritical,” said Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.). “The whole [repeal effort] is a hypocrisy — the fact that they’re falling back on their position and now they’re going to change a little bit here and change a little there tells you how well it was thought out.”
Either way, Congress will have to address this issue as it moves ahead with dismantling parts of the Affordable Care Act — likely before the Obamacare subsidies would end in 2020. The Office of Personnel Management, which runs the federal employee plan, would need time to set up a new system.
It may not be so simple.
The repeal bill working its way through the House does not lift the Obamacare ban on allowing lawmakers into the federal employees’ health plan.
But they might not be able to stay in their Obamacare plan, either. That’s because it’s unclear whether states — including the District of Columbia — will keep their exchanges open after the Obamacare subsidies end in 2020. If the District keeps its SHOP or small-business exchange open, OPM could decide to keep covering lawmakers and staffers in that market.
But without further legislation or OPM rulings, lawmakers and their Hill staffers would be left in an insurance no-man’s land with no options. And legislation isn’t so easy in a deeply divided Congress.
Of particular concern are the Hill staffers, especially the lowest-level staff. Many on Capitol Hill expect those staffers would leave the Hill for higher-paying jobs if they lose the employer contribution to their health insurance.
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