- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 5, 2013

Members of Congress and many of their staffers have only a few more days to enroll in Obamacare, and tensions are rising on Capitol Hill.

House Speaker John A. Boehner said Thursday it took him “three to four hours” to sign up for Obamacare, but he made it through eventually.

“My health insurance premiums are going to double,” the Ohio Republican said at his weekly news conference. “My co-pays and deductibles triple under Obamacare. I’m thrilled to death, as you can tell.”

An amendment to the Affordable Care Act required federal 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.

But with the enrollment deadline looming, the complaints are growing louder — and are aimed particularly at the D.C. small-business exchange that members of Congress are supposed to enroll in.

The D.C. exchange’s log-in tool experienced technical difficulties Thursday morning.

“Sigh. I was just in the middle of signing up,” the chief of staff for Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, tweeted in response to an internal Senate email about the hiccup.

D.C. Health Link spokesman Richard Sorian said the problem lasted for less than an hour. He noted the exchange has been working with Capitol Hill employees in one-on-one sessions, and that while the system may not be working perfectly, “we are able to help people shop and enroll.”

One House Republican aide said Thursday the log-in feature on the website would send members of his office into a Kafkaesque loop that shut them out when they tried to retype their email addresses — it would say a user already had the address — or failed to recognize their passwords.

“These problems are not unique to our office,” he said.

A subplot of the Obamacare debate — whether health plans cover abortion — also is creeping into the Hill debate.

Rep. Christopher H. Smith, New Jersey Republican, is leading the charge for more transparency, saying it is nearly impossible to tell whether each exchange offers plans that do not cover the services.

“Abortion isn’t health care — it kills babies and harms women,” Mr. Smith said.

Mr. Sorian said two major carriers on the D.C. exchange offer a total of nine plans in the gold tier that do not cover elective abortion.

“And they have networks across the country so that helps staff who work in state or district offices who want that kind of policy,” he said.

But the primary source of Hill controversy has always been who, exactly, must enter the exchanges.

Earlier this week, CNN reported that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, decided to exempt leadership staff from the exchanges, although he and his personal staff will enroll through Obamacare. His decision follows a strict reading of the law’s provision, but conservatives accused him of excusing aides from a law he led to passage over Republican objections.

Other lawmakers declared all of their staff members exempt from the exchanges by designating them as nonofficial staff.

In recent months, the Obama administration decided to allow folks on Capitol Hill to keep an employer-based subsidy that defrays up to 75 percent of their premium costs. It also let lawmakers decide which aides were “official staff” subject to the exchanges.

Many conservatives jumped on the caveats as underhanded attempts to “exempt” lawmakers from a law they created.

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

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