A quartet of Republican lawmakers Tuesday accused the Obama administration of taking steps to "shield Washington insiders" from financial impacts of the health care law and said it should reconsider its approach.
Sens. David Vitter of Louisiana and Mike Lee of Utah and Reps. Phil Gingrey of Georgia and Ron DeSantis of Florida said the Office of Personnel Management went beyond the text of the Affordable Care Act when it decided in early August to let denizens of Capitol Hill get taxpayer money to cover up to 75 percent of their premiums.
The move effectively keeps a traditional subsidy in place, although the law forces members of Congress and their staffs to acquire insurance through state-based health exchanges in the coming year and beyond.
"This proposed 'fix' is exactly why the American public has a very negative impression of Congress and Washington," the lawmakers said in a letter to OPM Acting Director Elaine Kaplan.
They said the health care law states "very clearly" that federal lawmakers and staff must procure their insurance through an exchange.
"Just as clearly, it does not reconstitute government support of their present coverage under the separate Federal Employees Health Benefits Plan (FEHBP) as payment toward the Exchange," they wrote.
Supporters of the OPM's interpretation say there was never any intention to change the federal employer-contribution to lawmakers and staff when Congress agreed to an amendment by Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican, that forced them to experience the exchanges.
Without the usual subsidy, they said, Capitol Hill could suffer a significant exodus of staffers who can no longer afford their health care premiums.
Mr. Lee said in an interview that "nobody looks forward to the consequences of this," but that is not the objectors' chief concern.
"It doesn't appear to us OPM was following the law," he said.
Republican lawmakers have unveiled draft bills in both the House and Senate that they say would force members of Congress to experience Obamacare the same way many average Americans will — having to pay out-of-pocket for insurance in state-based exchanges.
The bills differ slightly, but one solution some Republicans are floating is to force President Obama and his political appointees to ditch their government-sponsored plans and join the state exchanges.
Another option would be to overturn the administration's decision to let congressional employees keep their employer-paid contributions.
Authors of Tuesday's letter said OPM tried to quietly push through its interpretation on the cusp of Congress' late-summer recess. They also objected to the agency's decision to let individual lawmakers certify who is considered official staff and must enter the exchanges.
"If the original policy intent was to leave it to individual Members to determine staff and their eligibility for taxpayer funded subsidies," the lawmakers said, "it should have been corrected in the public sphere through the legislative process."
Republican leaders have said that absent a more surgical fix, they are always open to scrapping the law altogether. One of the letter's authors, Mr. Lee, is leading an uphill charge to defund the health care law as a part of an upcoming showdown over a spending bill that would keep the government running after Sept. 30.
Mr. Lee said eliminating the law would be his "preferred mechanism" for resolving the OPM situation.
"It would be the most effective way of dealing with it," he said.
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