Vista Workers Told Their U.S. Health Plan Fails Test
Cheryl Gerber for The New York Times
“It’s as if the right hand does not know what the left hand is doing,” said Abby Grosslein, a Vista volunteer in New Orleans.
By ROBERT PEAR
Published: December 26, 2013
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration has told Vista volunteers and other AmeriCorps workers that their government-provided health coverage does not measure up to the standards of the new health care law, and that they may be subject to financial penalties unless they obtain insurance elsewhere.
The notice has surprised and worried workers in AmeriCorps, the federal community service program that is often described as a domestic version of the Peace Corps.
Mary Strasser, the director of AmeriCorps’ Vista program, described the changes in a bulletin to members on Dec. 16.
The coverage provided by the agency — the AmeriCorps Health Care Benefits Plan — “does not satisfy the individual responsibility requirement of the Affordable Care Act,” which takes effect on Jan. 1, Ms. Strasser said. Accordingly, she said, Vista members may be required to pay a tax penalty if they do not have other coverage and do not receive an exemption.
The impact on community service workers is another unanticipated consequence of the health care law, which is making coverage available at little or no cost to many uninsured people but disrupting coverage for others who already had it.
Abby Grosslein, a Vista member in New Orleans, said she thought it was strange that the health benefits provided by a federal agency did not meet the standards of a law adopted more than three and a half years ago. “It would be nice if the government waived the penalty because we are a federally funded program,” said Ms. Grosslein, 24, who is completing her third year of service with AmeriCorps. “It’s as if the right hand does not know what the left hand is doing.”
Moreover, she said: “The Affordable Care Act has been on the books since 2010. Why are we hearing only now that our health plan is not compliant?”
Thousands of private employers and state and local government agencies have revamped their employee health plans to meet the law’s requirements. But AmeriCorps says that its members are technically not employees, and that it does not have to provide them with the “minimum essential coverage” they need to comply with the individual mandate. “There will be no changes to the AmeriCorps Health Care Benefits Plan,” Ms. Strasser wrote.
Vista, or Volunteers in Service to America, was proposed by President John F. Kennedy in 1963, authorized by Congress in 1964 and folded into the AmeriCorps network of programs in 1993. Its members work in education, housing, jobs and social service programs.
President Obama — a onetime community organizer — is a big supporter, and he has called public service “a central cause” of his administration. In March, the White House said that “AmeriCorps may be one of America’s best assets,” transforming communities every day.
Rick Christman of Lexington, Ky., a former member of the board of AmeriCorps’ parent organization, the Corporation for National and Community Service, said no one expected that Vista workers would be subject to penalties because their health coverage was inadequate.
“It’s unfortunate,” Mr. Christman said.
Samantha Jo Warfield, a spokeswoman for the agency, said AmeriCorps members had several options: They can keep their current coverage; they can shop for coverage on the new insurance exchanges, including HealthCare.gov; and if they are under 26, they may be able to stay on their parents’ insurance. In addition, some might be eligible for Medicaid, the federal-state program for low-income people, which is being expanded in about half the states.
AmeriCorps members say their existing coverage, which pays for doctors’ services, hospital care and prescription drugs, meets most of their needs. However, according to the members’ handbook, “AmeriCorps does not provide benefits for any diagnosis that is considered a pre-existing condition,” and the coverage for preventive care appears to be less than the law requires.
Sarah L. Sklaw, a 22-year-old Vista member from New York City, said: “I really support the Affordable Care Act, and I don’t want to be a naysayer. But it was surprising and frustrating to be told that our health coverage would not meet the law’s standards, especially because the Corporation for National and Community Service told us at orientation in August that we did not need to worry about the issue.”
Other AmeriCorps members said they occasionally needed more extensive coverage to pay for treatment of pre-existing conditions or injuries requiring specialty care, and they noted that some members did dangerous work, such as fighting wildfires or building trails on steep mountains.
The AmeriCorps health plan is available at no cost to members of Vista and the National Civilian Community Corps, a residential program for young men and women, who help build homes, tutor children and provide disaster relief and other services.
Vista officials said that some members might qualify for exemptions from the individual mandate penalty because of their low incomes. Vista members receive allowances to cover the cost of food, housing and other basic necessities. But the amounts are low because members are expected to live at approximately the same economic level as those they servehttp://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/27/us/vista-workers-told-their-us-health-plan-fails-test.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20131227&_r=1&