Republican senators put aides on exchanges
Lawmakers will have to declare whether their aides are 'official' staff or not.
By BURGESS EVERETT, JAKE SHERMAN and JOHN BRESNAHAN | 10/29/13 10:15 AM EDT Updated: 10/29/13 3:47 PM EDTAll but one of the top-ranking Senate Republican leaders plan to place all of their staffers on the Obamacare health exchanges. But it’s still unclear whether the Democratic Senate leadership will follow suit.
House leaders haven’t yet said whether they will put their aides on the D.C. health-insurance exchange, or keep them under their current health care plan.
A spokesman said on Monday that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) staff will get their insurance from the “DC Health Link” under a controversial provision of the Affordable Care Act that requires lawmakers and many Capitol Hill staffers to enter the exchanges by Oct. 31.
The Kentucky Republican has designated all of his aides part of his personal office, which means his staffers will receive their insurance from the exchange rather than through the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program.
“None of the McConnell staff will be designated to remain in the FEHBP [Federal Employee Health Benefits Program],” said Michael Brumas, a spokesman for McConnell. “Unlike the entire Obama administration — who are trying to convince Americans that the government exchanges are great — we are not exempt from the exchanges.”
It’s up to lawmakers to declare whether their aides are “official office” staff or not, according to a memo sent Tuesday to all House offices by Daniel Strodel, the House’s chief administrative officer. “Official office” staff — aides paid entirely out of the member’s expense allowance — will be required to join the D.C. exchange. Members of Congress or their “designees” will decide “which staff work in the official office of each member.”
But some Republican senators have made the move already.
Staffers for Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn of Texas will also enter the exchanges, a spokeswoman said on Tuesday. Cornyn and McConnell join two other Republican leaders — John Thune (R-S.D.) and John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) — who have decided to have their staff obtain their health insurance from the exchange. The fifth-ranking Republican, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), indicated his leadership aides would stay on the federal benefits program.
“Whatever staff meets the definition of official staff, which would be almost all of my staff and me, would have to go on the exchanges,” Blunt told POLITICO. “As long as the law continues to treat official staff and committee and leadership staff differently, we’re going to follow the law.”Blunt can choose to keep his leadership aides on the federal benefits program because the health care law doesn’t require leadership or committee staffers to join the exchanges.
Meanwhile, Senate Democratic leaders didn’t directly answer the question of their plans for their staff, though Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), a member of leadership and the Budget Committee chairwoman, will put all of her staff on the health exchanges.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Tuesday gave a somewhat cryptic answer to a question of whether he planned to put his staffers on the exchanges, telling reporters: “I’m following the law as closely as I can.” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin said his office is “working on it.” And Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) does not divulge internal office policies, an aide said.
On the other side of the Capitol, Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) office would not say whether it will require its aides to join the exchange.
“We do not have any decision to announce, and will not until the speaker talks with our staff later today,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said.
Members of the Senate leadership and top lawmakers on each committee are able to choose whether their staff remains on the federal program or enters the health exchange and they have until Oct. 31 to do so, according to a memo sent to Senate staffers last week.
Hill aides who don’t receive a designation of official office staff — that is, committee and leadership aides — will be allowed to continue to get their insurance under the federal program.
Whether or not they are designated official or leadership, the federal government will continue to make premium payments to help offset the cost of lawmakers’ and staffers’ insurance plans. This decision is already becoming politically sensitive on Capitol Hill. It was the topic of much discussion at a Tuesday morning meeting of the House Republican Conference.
The issue of health insurance for members and aides has become a serious political controversy in recent months and was interjected into the recent government shutdown.
With the shutdown looming on Sept. 30, Boehner threw his support behind legislation barring the federal government from making health insurance premium payments. Boehner privately negotiated with Reid to keep the federal contribution to the program.
The Senate rejected the measure, and some House Republicans were upset by Boehner’s decision to back the provision.