Issa: Let All Americans Into Feds’ Health Plan

Carolyn Kaster/AP

This story has been updated.

Most Republicans do not like the Affordable Care Act.

But one Republican leader has proposed a supplement to the law referred to as Obamacare: Allow all Americans to enroll in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program. 

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, officially unveiled the Equal Healthcare Access Act Wednesday. “The American people should have as easy a consumer experience as federal employees do,” he said.

The proposal would not repeal any elements of Obamacare, but would enable all Americans to enter into the same exchange markets as federal employees, allowing all citizens access to the 230 plans -- in 2014, that number will grow to 256 -- in which feds currently enroll. The bill would authorize the Office of Personnel Management, which oversees FEHBP for the federal workforce, to transition the program to include nonfederal worker beneficiaries.

The oversight leader acknowledged the plan would come with an administrative price tag, but said OPM charges a fee of up to 1 percent of each individual’s premium that would cover the costs. Issa emphasized the efficiency with which OPM manages FEHBP and said that experience would help keep costs down. 

Issa said the plan would improve access to and choice of health care plans, while providing more affordable options because the increase in participants would “foster greater competition among insurance providers for price and quality.”

One major difference between the federal and nonfederal enrollees, however, would persist. Federal agencies, on average, pay about 72 percent of their employees’ health care premiums. Issa noted private sector employees would not receive any such subsidy automatically, but employers could opt to subsidize premium costs.

Issa encouraged people to see for themselves what the process of enrolling through the federal employees’ health care system is like. “People can visit the OPM website to see how easy it would be for Americans to compare health insurance prices under this system,” he said.

Critics of the plan have noted its similarity to the Affordable Care Act. Both create “state-based, market-driven comprehensive health insurance options that are not linked to employment and don't penalize people for having pre-existing conditions,” Garance Franke-Ruta noted in The Atlantic.

Issa, himself a stark and vocal opponent of Obamacare, is not the first politician to suggest opening up FEHBP to all Americans -- though he may be the first conservative to do so. In 2004, then-Massachusetts senator John Kerry, now secretary of State, made the expansion of federal employees’ health care markets part of his Democratic presidential campaign platform.

A spokesperson for the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee said Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., who chairs the committee, also supported opening FEHBP during the 2009 and 2010 health care debate, but he was met with opposition from his Republican colleagues. “Although the idea of opening FEHBP was taken off the table as a result of opposition from conservatives, Sen. Carper continues to support the implementation of the Affordable Care Act,” the spokesperson said. 

J. David Cox, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, criticized Issa’s FEHBP expansion plan for its lack of cost controls.

“Rep. Issa has neglected one pesky detail in his proposal: how to pay for an FEHBP plan,” Cox said. “Hundreds of thousands of federal employees don’t participate in FEHBP because they cannot afford their 30 percent share of the premiums. Rep. Issa would have people pay the entire premium, and that is something only millionaires could afford.” The Affordable Care Act does, however, provide subsidies for low-income individuals purchasing health insurance.

Cox added Issa’s plan creates benefits and a structure “remarkably similar” to the markets created by the Affordable Care Act.

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