August 13, 2013 in City

Congress, staff forced to change health insurance

Lawmakers must join health care exchanges
By The Spokesman-Review
 

A wrinkle in the Affordable Care Act is taking away the lucrative employee health care benefits from members of Congress, forcing the lawmakers and their staffs to buy policies from their state exchanges or make other arrangements.

While Washington’s Democratic senators and staff are prepping to enroll beginning Oct. 1, at least one member of the Republican caucus – Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane – said she will not.

A spokeswoman for McMorris Rodgers explained Monday the House Republican Conference chair has no plans to purchase coverage from the taxpayer-subsidized state exchanges when she loses her employer-based health care benefits on Jan. 1. McMorris Rodgers has symbolically voted many times in the House of Representatives to invalidate the health care law known colloquially as “Obamacare.”

The loss of employer health care benefits was prompted by an amendment, proposed by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, in the original bill three years ago. Grassley asked that members of Congress and their staff switch their coverage from the Federal Employee Health Benefit plan to the new markets, offering the amendment as a way to force Senate Democrats in favor of health care reform to accept the coverage offered through their own law. The amendment remained intact, and proposed rules handed out last week by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management seek to clarify the process and who on Capitol Hill is losing eligibility for their existing federal benefits.

According to Grassley’s amendment, members of Congress and employees working in an “official office” will lose coverage through their current plan. The statutory language clarifies that the law covers all part-time and full-time employees of congressional members, though it does not provide a clear definition of an official office, leaving that determination to the members. In addition, employees of legislative committees such as Sen. Patty Murray’s Budget Committee or Sen. Maria Cantwell’s Committee on Indian Affairs may be exempt from the mandatory switch based on the language.

The government will also continue to pay up to 75 percent of the cost of insurance premiums for those members bumped off the federal insurance rolls, the Office of Personnel Management said in its release to congressional staffers.

The call for input into the proposed federal rules prompted a partisan response that has typified congressional reaction to the Affordable Care Act.

Murray, who has been an outspoken proponent of the federal health care law, told the Seattle Times last week she welcomed the switch and would be moving to a King County exchange.

Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, has called the health law bad policy. But he said through a spokesman Monday he would follow the mandates if the Affordable Care Act is not repealed.


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