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Congress, FEHBP and ObamaCare

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Back in 2010, as the health care reform debate was raging on, Senate Republicans proposed legislative language requiring lawmakers to drop their insurance coverage in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program and enter the newly created exchange market.

The proposal was a political gambit, attempting to force Democrats to cast an embarrassing vote to opt out of one of the Affordable Care Act’s major provisions. Democrats called the bluff, however, and the amendment passed easily.

Three years later, members of Congress and their staffers are faced with the reality of losing FEHBP coverage.

The Office of Personnel Management has not yet issued regulations on how this switch will play out. Jonathan Foley, director of OPM’s Planning and Policy Analysis Office, recently told the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee that oversees the federal workforce that OPM is “in the process of writing regulations in response to the law,” but would not offer further detail.

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.

OPM also will have to determine what will come of health benefits for retirees, which are also currently run through FEHBP.

Unequal Treatment

Not everyone on Capitol Hill will have to change their insurance. Anyone currently on Medicare -- about 40 senators and 115 House members, according to Politico -- will be unaffected. Additionally, the health care law affects only lawmakers and their staffs. This creates a loophole that allows aides who work directly for a committee -- as well as those in leadership offices -- to keep their FEHBP benefits. 

Pushback

Politico has reported leaders in Congress are engaged in “high-level, confidential talks” to exempt lawmakers and their staffers from ObamaCare.  These reports, however, appear to be exaggerated.

“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,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s, D-Nev.,  office said in a statement.

Instead, members of Congress are negotiating how to ensure their benefits -- and their aides’ benefits -- are still subsidized. Hill offices are in talks with OPM to ensure some benefits are still maintained. If aides are on their own in the exchange market, it would result in the equivalent of a pay cut of several thousand dollars.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has said the cut could result in a brain drain in congressional staffs.

“Many members have concerns about this possible decision by OPM and the potential impact that this could have on the quality of the House workforce,” a Pelosi spokesman told Politico.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said at the hearing with OPM’s Foley the switch would cause an unnecessary burden on the federal government, which would have to administer individual health plans in each of the members’ home states, rather than as a collective pool.

ObamaCare For All

While Congress and OPM try to sort out how to move the pool of a few thousand off FEHBP and into the new exchange market, a group of lawmakers is attempting to take millions of other government workers out of the federal program.  

Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., has proposed a bill to move all federal employees off FEHBP and onto exchanges. Only active duty military members and U.S. Postal Service employees would remain in the federal employees’ pool.

A spokeswoman for the House Way and Means Committee, which Camp chairs, said the Democrats’ attempt to “exempt themselves” proves the ineffectiveness of Obama’s health care reform.  She added that short of full repeal, all of the federal government should be forced into the new exchange market.

“If the ObamaCare exchanges are good enough for the hardworking Americans and small businesses the law claims to help,” the spokeswoman said in a statement, “then they should be good enough for the president, vice president, Congress and federal employees.”

Eric Katz joined Government Executive in the summer of 2012 after graduating from The George Washington University, where he studied journalism and political science. He has written for his college newspaper and an online political news website and worked in a public affairs office for the Navy’s Military Sealift Command. Most recently, he worked for Financial Times, where he reported on national politics.

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