- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Obama administration detailed Wednesday how the government can keep contributing to health care premiums of members of Congress and their staffers even as they purchase coverage through state exchanges tied to the president’s health care law.

Guidance from the Office of Personnel Management follows up an announcement last week that Congress and its staffers won’t face massive increases in their health care premiums next year, as many feared, because of a clause in the Affordable Care Act that compels them to buy insurance through the exchanges.

The decision stirred relief on Capitol Hill and controversy among the public. Republican opponents of the law could argue that Congress excused itself from a deleterious aspect of legislation it passed in 2010.

OPM’s new rule says congressional members and staff should buy coverage through the exchanges in the states where they reside. For staffers, that likely will mean enrolling through the District, Maryland or Virginia.

The rule also says members of Congress should designate, by October each year, which staff members work in their official offices and “therefore, must choose health plans from the Exchanges.”

The administrative fix was made because Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican, put a provision into the original legislation saying members of Congress and their aides have to be covered by plans “created” by the Affordable Care Act or “offered through an exchange.”

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Even though it may have been symbolic or a political ploy, the provision was approved.

Under the old system, the federal government contributed to about 75 percent of premiums; members and staffers are covered through the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, but it was unclear whether the program could subsidize premiums of plans in the exchanges.

The OPM makes clear that members and staff still can receive the contribution, although they are not eligible for tax credits or subsidies on the exchanges.

Sen. David Vitter, Louisiana Republican and a vocal critic of the administration’s decision, complained about the developments in a letter to congressional leaders Wednesday. When Congress reconvenes next month, the senator will introduce legislation that forces the president, vice president, political appointees and certain exempted congressional staffers to buy their health coverage through the exchanges.

“The Obamacare statute states very clearly that all Members of Congress and their staffs are to procure their health insurance through the Obamacare Exchange,” his letter said. “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. … Until Obamacare is fully repealed, those elected by the public must abide by the same law Americans are being forced to live with.”

He said the provision that allows members of Congress “to define what staff is even covered at all is particularly offensive and obnoxious.”

“It’s obviously intended to allow for a significant portion of congressional staff, like leadership staff, to be exempted from even having to deal with the Exchange at all, notwithstanding the whopping subsidy that the rule creates,” he said in his letter.

Enrollment in the exchanges — marketplaces where consumers can shop for and buy insurance — is scheduled to begin Oct. 1. Democrats and Republicans are planning significant public relations campaigns on the law during the congressional summer recess.

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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