- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Senate Republicans voted Wednesday to abide by Obamacare by requiring all their staffers to sign up for insurance on the health care exchanges, a move designed to take the moral high ground when the GOP takes control of the chamber next year and moves to repeal the health care law altogether.

The Senate Republican Conference agreed to the proposal in a closed-door vote. Each senator is to designate staff on Capitol Hill as “official,” which under federal rules means employer-provided insurance must be purchased through the Affordable Care Act’s health care exchanges.

“Republican senators made a strong, principled statement today in passing my resolution,” said Sen. David Vitter, the Louisiana Republican who pushed for the vote. “Washington should have to live under Obamacare just like everybody else until we repeal it. And we won’t be complicit in Obama’s illegal rule designed to protect Washington insiders.”

The resolution passed by voice vote with no “nays.” It challenges Senate Democrats to follow the Republicans’ lead, though that’s unlikely.

The move contrasts with the House, where Republicans last month rejected a similar proposal.

Also Wednesday, Senate Republicans voted to continue the ban on earmarks, or the requests lawmakers slip into bills to fund favorite projects back home.

“The American people are tired of wasteful government spending and special interest handouts,” said Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, the Pennsylvania Republican who led the anti-earmark effort. “Taxpayers don’t want to pay for bridges to nowhere, studies on maple syrup or the cowboy poetry festival.”

On Obamacare, Congress is walking a fine line between political optics and pleasing their staff members, many of whom don’t want to give up their insurance under the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program and instead buy policies through the health care exchanges.

The 2010 law required that members of Congress and their staffs join the same exchanges they were imposing on millions of other Americans.

But fearing good staffers would leave, some lawmakers designated only some of their employees as “official.” Those who escaped that designation are still allowed to get coverage under the regular federal employees program, which is considered generous.

Lawmakers don’t even have to disclose how many of their staffers they put into each category, which Mr. Vitter would like to change through his legislation.

Republican lawmakers on both sides of the Capitol are plotting to chip away at unpopular parts of the law in the coming Congress and plan to use their new majority in the Senate to hold votes that Democrats have denied them over the past four years.

Sen.-elect Bill Cassidy, Louisiana Republican, said he supported Mr. Vitter’s resolution. He said all his staff members would use the exchanges.

“If it’s good enough for the American people to live under the indignity of the exchanges, as difficult and as expensive as they are, it’s better that those who are writing the law or helping to write the law would also live under that indignity and that expense,” he said. “Otherwise, the law will never change.”

Still to come is a fight over whether lawmakers and staff should continue to collect a federal subsidy that pays up to 75 percent of their health care premiums if they buy insurance on the District of Columbia small-business exchange.

Mr. Vitter wants to cancel that subsidy, saying members of Congress, their employees and top officials in the executive branch shouldn’t have any benefits in using the exchange that are out of reach for regular Americans.

He tried to force a vote on that proposal, but Senate Democrats blocked him from attaching it as an amendment to certain bills.

The resolution Republicans adopted Wednesday does not take a stand on the matter one way or another.

Subsidy or not, a pair of glitches on the D.C. health care exchange have caused problems for some Capitol Hill staff members renewing or amending their coverage for 2015, exchange officials said this week.

Some customers are finding out that they cannot document a life event, such as adding a spouse or baby to their coverage, on their own because the process is not fully automated.

“We have to do that for you,” said Mila Kofman, executive director of the D.C. Health Benefit Exchange Authority.

It is not clear how many people are affected by the issue, but it is “not just a few people,” she said.

In other cases, the system did not properly update customers’ personal information for the 2015 coverage year, so customers who wanted to make changes to existing coverage ran into problems.

People who are creating accounts for the first time, or automatically renewing coverage they had last year, should not run into trouble, according to the exchange.

The Senate disbursing office, which handles pay and benefits, sent a mass email early this week that asked staff who encountered problems on D.C. Health Link to notify the office by Monday.

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

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