Hill aides can quietly stay off health exchanges
By: Jake Sherman and Burgess Everett
October 29, 2013 07:06 PM EDT
Obamacare is, once again, turning Capitol Hill upside down.
Congressional offices this week have been forced into a frenzied, late-hour scramble to decide which of their staffers will be pushed onto the District of Columbia’s health insurance exchanges and which will be able to keep their current health insurance plans.
Under rules created in the wake of Obamacare’s implementation, House and Senate personal office staffers — dubbed “official office” aides by the House administrative office — are supposed to get their health insurance through D.C.’s health insurance exchange. Committee and leadership staffers — labeled “official staff” — are allowed to keep their current health insurance plan, which is administered by the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program.
But like many things on Capitol Hill, there’s a wrinkle: Members of the House and Senate may quietly allow their aides to stay off the exchange, and keep their current plan.
“It seems too cute,” said Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) of the news. Denham is putting all his staff on the exchanges.
In what members of both parties said was a surprise, guidance on Tuesday from the chief administrative officer of the House said lawmakers could privately designate personal office aides as not “official,” meaning they do not have to go on the exchange and could keep their current plan. Similarly, House lawmakers can decide that their committee and leadership staffers need to go on D.C.’s exchanges.
“Most members are going to opt to have their employees go to the exchanges — that’s the best reading of the rule,” Rep. Rob Andrews (D-N.J.) said. “You’re either official or you’re not. If you’re official, you play by the rules. I just don’t think many members are going to opt for this unofficial status.”
Similar guidance was distributed in the Senate last week, where at least one senator not in committee or party leadership was looking at using a “liberal” interpretation of the rules to exempt aides from the exchanges, sources said. But it will be difficult for rank-and-file senators to escape public scrutiny if they choose to keep their aides off the exchanges, given senators’ more prominent stature and fewer numbers than House members.
Some House lawmakers are saying that in the face of vague rules, they will make their own determination about what to do.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, says he’ll declare his entire staff — including aides in his personal office — not “official.” They can then keep their current plan, which they bought under the FEHBP.
“I’ve gotta make the right decision for my employees, I gotta make a decision consistent with their best interest and strict interpretation of the law,” Issa told POLITICO Tuesday. “[The rule] doesn’t define [which aides are “official”]. That gets me back to what’s fair. My 18 personal staff both here and in the district, who are currently in FEHBP, will get the same subsidy regardless. One is a known — the other I don’t know the price of. Making the right decision for my employees — this is the right decision.”
Issa stood up in a closed Republican meeting Tuesday and announced this decision, also noting that he voted against Obamacare.
House committee chairs are expected to discuss this situation Wednesday at a meeting.
“It just is one of the other dumb things that this whole [situation] has caused,” said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, a two-decade congressional veteran. “What we should do is, we should do the same thing for everybody. You know, I’ve been here 21 years, everybody’s been treated the same — Democrat, Republican.”
The issue is so fraught with tension that the closed meetings of both the House Democratic Caucus and House Republican Conference on Tuesday evolved into discussions of this process. In the Democratic meeting, members complained about receiving information about designating staffers late Monday and early Tuesday, and being told they must make a decision by Thursday at 5 p.m. Republicans have also begun carping about it, as well.
“I’ve spent the past couple of hours reading about it,” Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) said Tuesday. “They’re asking us to make a decision that will last until the end of 2014 in 72 hours.”
Some Democrats are privately calling for the House Ethics Committee to probe whether members of Congress should have such broad latitude to designate the status — and thereby health insurance options — of their aides.
This is just the latest turn in the months-long uproar over how Capitol Hill employees and lawmakers will get their health insurance. A Republican-authored provision in the 2010 Affordable Care Act aimed to put lawmakers and Hill staffers into the exchanges. That evolved into a debate over whether the federal government could continue to contribute payments toward lawmakers’ and aides’ insurance plans. President Barack Obama got involved, and the Office of Personnel Management determined that the government could contribute toward such premium payments.
Some Republicans — Louisiana Sen. David Vitter, most publicly — have protested these government payments.
The stakes here — both politically and practically — are massive. There are tens of thousands of Hill employees, and the way this is resolved could alter the congressional employment landscape. For example, the post-Obamacare patchwork of health care plans will make it more difficult for staffers to move among lawmakers’ offices as they climb the Hill power ladder.
“People now can work in one office, they go to another office, they don’t have to have a discussion. It’s the same,” said McKeon.
This is a political issue, too. Much of House and Senate Republican leadership will have their aides purchase health insurance from the exchange, according to sources. Senate and House Democrats — many of whom helped write the Affordable Care Act — have not yet said what they will do.
In the Senate, the split between parties seems sharp. The staff of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell will all enter the exchanges. “Unlike the entire Obama administration — who are trying to convince Americans that the government exchanges are great — we are not exempt from the exchanges,” said Michael Brumas, a spokesman for McConnell.
Other Republican leaders have followed suit: Aides to Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn of Texas and Sens. John Thune of South Dakota and John Barrasso of Wyoming will get their health insurance from the exchange.
The fifth-ranking Senate Republican, Roy Blunt of Missouri, indicated his leadership aides would stay on the federal benefits program.
Senate Democrats, however, aren’t being as direct.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said he’s “following the law as closely as I can.” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois said his office is “working on it.” Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York said his office does not divulge internal office policies. Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray of Washington, who is also a member of her party’s leadership, said her staff would go onto the exchange.