Members of Congress had to decide by Thursday which of their staffers would be kicked off their congressional health care plan and forced to buy coverage through the Obamacare exchanges, leading to a mishmash of legal strategies and recriminations on Capitol Hill.
Under the provision, written by Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican, during the health care debate, members of Congress and their office aides are supposed to be pushed to buy insurance in the state-based marketplaces, or exchanges, set up by the Affordable Care Act. The goal was to make lawmakers go through what many Americans are facing.
But the Obama administration said it’s up to each member to decide which of his or her staff are “official” — and some are taking that more strictly than others.
“I dislike the law. I am unhappy with its implementation. I am even losing my own coverage under [the federal benefits plan],” Rep. Jason Chaffetz, Utah Republican, said this week. “However, I feel that I have no choice but to comply with the letter and the spirit of the law by enrolling myself and my staff in Obamacare.”
Republican Sen. John Barrasso, of Wyoming, said he, too, will put his employees in the exchanges. So will House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, who notified her employees of the decision Wednesday.
But Rep. Steve Stockman, Texas Republican, said his staff unanimously voted to reject Obamacare enrollment, saying the law subsidizes abortion and is a “Ponzi scheme” that forces young people to pay more for health care.
Mr. Stockman’s spokesman, Donny Ferguson, said the staff will be designated as “not official” and keep the federal plan.
“I hope Obama will appreciate us doing our part to keep his promise, since he isn’t,” he said, a reference to Mr. Obama’s pledge that people who like their health plan could keep it under his law.
Eager to spread the pain, Republicans have repeatedly tried to force President Obama, Vice President Joseph R. Biden and Cabinet officials into the exchanges, too.
This week GOP lawmakers grilled Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius at a hearing, asking why she didn’t voluntarily join.
She said she would, but she’s happy with her federal employee plan.
Sen. David Vitter, Louisiana Republican, filed a bill Thursday that would force all lawmakers to reveal how many of their staffers have been allowed to keep their federal health plans.
In cases where House members didn’t want to have to pick and choose which staffers counted as official, the chief administrative officer of the House said he would make the call. He said he would rule anyone whose full salary is paid for out of an office account to be termed “official.”
Those kicked off their federal plans are supposed to enroll in the District of Columbia’s small-business exchange, or “SHOP,” and choose from one of 112 options in the gold-tier level of health plans, according to guidance from the Office of Personnel Management.
Unlike the federal exchange system, which has been rocked by website glitches on HealthCare.gov, the city’s system is up and running, officials said.
“The SHOP is working very well and has been since we launched on October 1,” D.C. Health Link spokesman Richard Sorian said.
Mr. Grassley, who authored the original provision, said Thursday he approached the Secretary of the Senate for an interpretation of the final law and, as a result, placed his personal staff into the exchanges. His committee staff will remain in the federal benefits program.
Still, he doesn’t like what’s become of his idea.
“It obviously was rewritten in the black hole of [Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid’s office in a way that wasn’t intended by me and, most importantly, exempting 20 percent of Capitol Hill employees,” Mr. Grassley said. “But the law is the law.”