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Sen. David Vitter uses pharmacy bill to challenge Obamacare

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Sen. David Vitter wants to know if fellow lawmakers are skirting the letter of the law by exempting staff members from state-based Obamacare markets, and he is willing to hold up a pharmaceuticals bill that breezed through a key test vote late Tuesday to get his colleagues to fess up.

The Louisiana Republican cast the lone "no" vote as the chamber decided, by a 97-1 vote, to end debate on a bill that would regulate and monitor compounding pharmacies, which customize medicine for certain patients' needs.

For months, Mr. Vitter has charged that the Obama administration took an end run around a part of the Affordable Care Act that requires Capitol Hill lawmakers and their personal staff to forfeit their government-sponsored health care plans and enroll in state-based insurance exchanges. The goal was to make lawmakers experience what many Americans face in the individual marketplace.

Mr. Vitter wants to attach his piece of legislation, the Show Your Exemption Act, as an amendment to a widely supported pharmacy bill to make sure lawmakers disclose which staffers will take part in Obamacare, his spokesman said Tuesday.

Sens. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat, and Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican, crafted the underlying bill after a meningitis outbreak last year that killed more than 60 people. The outbreak was traced to unsanitary conditions at a compounding pharmacy in Massachusetts that, lawmakers said, flouted the law by acting like a large-scale drug manufacturer.

A similar bill passed in the House with broad support from both parties, a rare feat in the fractured chamber.

"I dare say, but for a senator, one person, we probably would have passed it by unanimous consent here," Mr. Harkin said Tuesday on the Senate floor, without singling out Mr. Vitter by name.

Mr. Vitter appears to be on his own. A spokesman for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican, said Tuesday he was not sure whether the House had a companion bill to Mr. Vitter's disclosure measure.

Mr. Vitter has insisted on a legislative fix to shine a light on lawmakers who let their staff keep out of the reach of Obamacare.

The Office of Personnel Administration said this year that it's up to each member to decide which staff members are "official." In recent floor speeches, Mr. Vitter said it is "outrageous" that some lawmakers are taking advantage of that leeway by issuing blanket exemptions for their staff.

Some are taking the letter of the law more strictly than others, with a hodgepodge of approaches to Obamacare exemptions among Republicans and Democrats alike in both chambers.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican who authored the amendment during the health care debate, said the original intent of his provision was distorted during the final drafting of the Obamacare statute, leading to various exemptions for leadership staff and others.

He said he is following a strict interpretation of the law by placing his personal staff in the exchanges and keeping his committee staff in the federal benefits health care plan.

Those kicked off their federal plans are supposed to enroll in the District of Columbia's small-business exchange and choose among 112 options in the gold-tier level of health care plans, according to guidance from the Obama administration.

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