Kadner: Congressmen forced into Obamacare
By Phil Kadner firstname.lastname@example.org March 26, 2013 9:36PM
U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-3rd) holds a town hall meeting Saturday, Feb. 9, 2013, in Lockport, Ill. | Cindy Wojdyla Cain~Sun-Times Media
Updated: April 28, 2013 6:42AM
Congressmen will have to get their health insurance next year through Obamacare.
For years, congressmen and their staffs have purchased insurance through the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, often referred to as the Cadillac of health care plans.
While many people assume this means congressmen pay nothing and that their insurance plans cover all medical costs, both of those assumptions are wrong.
The federal government does pick up a hefty share of the premiums, on average about 70 percent. And with the individual plans, federal employees select from a large menu of options, far more choices than the average private-sector employee might have.
When Democrats were pushing the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act in 2010, U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) successfully negotiated an amendment that members of Congress and their staffs must get their health coverage from state insurance exchanges created by Obamacare.
Specifically, the law states “the only health plans that the Federal Government may make available to Members of Congress and congressional staff with respect to their services as a Member of Congress or congressional staff shall be health plans that are, 1. created under this Act (or an amendment made by this Act); or 2. offered through an Exchange established under this Act (or an amendment of this Act).”
However, as one congressman pointed out to me, it appears when the final version of the law was written, the congressional committee staff members carved out a loophole for themselves.
Personal staff serve the individual members of Congress. Committee staffs work for the majority or minority members of various committees. There are also leadership staff members, who work for the House speaker, the majority and minority leaders and, well, you get the idea.
So some folks claim that while congressmen and their personal staffs will have to get insurance through Obamacare, staffers who work for House and Senate committees will be allowed to continue under the old federal insurance program.
As far as I’m concerned, it seems right that members of Congress and their personal staffs would be made to experience Obamacare first hand. And that was Grassley’s point in submitting his amendment.
Of course, Congress could still try to alter the law before it impacts the members. That could not be done without Republican support because the GOP controls the House.
As for Grassley, he’s still not satisfied. He has noted that the president, vice president, cabinet members and top White House staff, in addition to all those congressional committee staffers, would be exempt.
“Until the health care overhaul is repealed and replaced with reforms that have broad-based support,” Grassley noted in a news release in 2011, “the majority leadership in the Senate and the administration ought to make sure they are required to live under the health care law they put on the books.”
Grassley, in case you missed the reference in that statement, wants Obamacare repealed.
I’m an advocate of single-payer universal health care, and Obamacare is a step in that direction. I don’t like half-measures and that’s the Affordable Care Act.
While Grassley and I are obviously on opposite ends of that debate, I agree with him on the issue of making all elected leaders subject to the law.
My guess is that Grassley probably believes this is also a form of punishment for those who supported the bill.
Another issue, yet unanswered, is whether the federal government will continue to pay the insurance premiums for congressmen and their staffs.
A Congressional Research Service report suggests that the courts could decide that because the congressmen and their staffs could participate in an insurance exchange without assistance from the federal government, the government is already making the program available and therefore any premium would amount to the government paying the government.
In short, even congressmen at this point don’t know if they’ll be losing the employer-paid portion of their medical benefits next year.
More importantly, according to U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-3rd), if the premium is paid it appears it would no longer be tax deductible.
“I am not going to complain about this regarding congressmen,” Lipinski said, “but some of our staff members do not earn a lot of money. We have had to make cuts in recent years, will have to make cuts under the sequester yet again, and I am concerned about holding onto quality staff members.
“Making the insurance premium taxable would result in a significant pay cut for staff members.”
In terms of constituent services, Lipinski’s office staff is one of the best I’ve seen.
As for which exchanges his staff would belong to, Lipinski said his staff in Illinois would join an exchange in this state and his staff in Washington, D.C., would have to join a plan there.
I often receive letters and phone calls from people complaining that government programs would run better if the people elected to office had to use them.
While I’m not convinced that would happen, it does seem that congressmen, like millions of other Americans, are wondering just what impact all these changes in health care will have on their daily lives.
And while the law might unnecessarily cut into the pay of staff members, their complaints about the cost and quality of care are likely to reflect those of common working people undergoing the same hardships in private companies throughout the nation.
“President Obama said at the time that no one with health insurance through his employer would lose that health insurance because of this law,” Lipinski said. “Well, for my staff members, it appears that’s not true.”