Congressional Leaders Worried About Joining 'Obamacare' Exchanges

Some congressional leaders are looking at changing a part of the Affordable Care Act, or "Obamacare," that requires members of Congress and their staff to get their health insurance from the new health care exchanges.

Leaders from both parties have been in talks about making the change. Aware that they could be considered hypocrites for making the change, those meetings were in private. With the revelation of those secret meetings by Politico's John Bresnahan and Jake Sherman, those congressional leaders now appear to be backing away from the idea.

The requirement that all members of Congress and their staff get their health coverage through the exchanges was an odd quirk in the law from the beginning.

The ACA requires most Americans to obtain health insurance (the individual mandate). It expands the availability of coverage by expanding Medicaid eligibility and requiring large employers to provide coverage to their employees. The state-level health care exchanges were set up for those who are not eligible for Medicaid or Medicare and do not get their coverage from their employer, either because the employer is small and not required to provide coverage, or the employer is large and decided to pay the fine (or tax) rather than provide coverage.

As The Washington Post's Ezra Klein explains it, requiring federal employees to get coverage through the exchanges was intended to be a "gotcha" moment by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) during debates over the law's passage. Grassley's proposal was more of a message, essentially saying – if Democrats think this law is such a good idea, then let them have the same coverage. Rather than be embarrassed by the ploy, Democrats decided to go along with the idea and the proposal was added to the bill. Grassley originally wanted all federal employees to go on the exchanges. That was narrowed to members of Congress and their staff.

One concern of House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who first raised the issue, and other members of Congress who want the requirement changed, is that the coverage will be too costly for low-level staffers, some of whom make as little as $25,000 per year.

This may not be an issue, though. The Congressional Research Service has said that the government can contribute to the premium costs of Hill staffers. The final ruling on that, though, will have to be made by the Office of Personnel Management. If the OPM agrees with the CRS, a legislative fix will not be necessary.

In a Thursday statement, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's office said a legislative fix is not necessary.

"Senator Reid is committed to ensuring that all members of Congress and Congressional staff experience the benefits of the Affordable Care Act in exactly the same way as every other American. He believes that this is the effect of the legislation as written, and that therefore no legislative fix is necessary. There are not now, have never been, nor will there ever be any discussions about exempting members of Congress or Congressional staff from Affordable Care Act provisions that apply to any employees of any other public or private employer offering health care," the statement said.

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