OPM Nominee in Limbo Until Senator Gets Answers on Health Reform

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. Flickr user Talk Radio News Service

A Republican senator is blocking the White House’s pick to lead the Office of Personnel Management in an effort to force the Obama administration to provide more information on how health care reform will affect congressional staffers.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee approved the nomination of Katherine Archuleta as OPM director, but Ranking Member Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said he would place a hold on the nomination, which prevents the full Senate from considering it. Coburn, who opposed Archuleta during the committee vote, is blocking her nomination “until OPM gives us the decision on our employees’ health insurance. That decision hasn’t been decided; it’s gone to OPM and [the Office of Management and Budget] and back, and there’s no reason we should vote on this position until we know what the administration’s position is for our employees’ health insurance starting Oct. 1,” Coburn said during Wednesday’s markup.

Any senator can put a hold on a nominee. A hold can be lifted by the lawmaker blocking the nomination, or with 60 votes.

The 2010 Affordable Care Act requires lawmakers and congressional aides in personal offices to drop their insurance coverage in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program and enter the newly created exchange market beginning Oct. 1. The provision, as currently interpreted, does not affect members of Congress or staffers who have Medicare, committee aides or staffers in leadership offices. The law defines congressional staffers as “full-time and part-time employees employed by the official office of a Member of Congress, whether in Washington, D.C., or outside of Washington, D.C.” OPM, however, has not yet issued guidance on how to implement that part of the law.

Currently, the federal government covers about 70 percent of health care premium costs for lawmakers and their aides. It is unclear what percent, if any, the government will cover when the legislative branch moves to the exchange market. FEHBP provides health care benefits to 8.2 million federal employees, retirees and their dependents.

OPM said it hoped to issue a proposed rule on implementing the law for members of Congress and staff in October, according to a July 29 report in The New York Times. The initial open enrollment for plans offered through the exchanges starts Oct. 1, 2013, for coverage beginning in January 2014.

The agency did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Coburn’s hold.

Coburn called the provision in the current law “a gutting of our own staff because someone was trying to make a political point.” A June 13 report in Politico said the impending health care switch could affect retention. “Dozens of lawmakers and aides are so afraid that their health insurance premiums will skyrocket next year thanks to Obamacare that they are thinking about retiring early or just quitting,” said the article.

Under the Affordable Care Act, private health insurers that participate in the multi-state plan program on the exchanges will contract with OPM, the agency responsible for administering FEHBP. Providers must offer at least two multi-state plans on each of the exchanges in the 50 states and the District of Columbia. The law allows companies to phase in their coverage in all states and D.C. over four years, though they must offer coverage in at least 31 states in the first year of participation.

At Wednesday’s markup, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., praised Archuleta for her “confidence and drive,” as well as her experience with managing people and personnel processes. But he also admitted to being underwhelmed by her during an initial meeting. “I will tell you this, as a sidebar, when she first came into my office and interviewed with me, I was not impressed,” Tester told his colleagues. “But I can tell you in my conversations since and during the hearing, I was very impressed. I think in this position, and it’s a very important position as we all know, I think she will do a fine job,” said Tester, adding “I understand what Sen. Coburn wants, and hopefully he will get the information very soon and we can move forward with her nomination confirmation.”

Lawmakers quizzed Archuleta during her confirmation hearing earlier this month on a range of topics including OPM’s role in implementing the Affordable Care Act, improving the security clearance process and assessing the cost of official time for federal employees participating in union activities.

Archuleta said she would draw on OPM officials’ expertise to stand up the multi-state plan program under the health care reform law -- arguably one of the agency’s most pressing tasks at the moment.

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