Legislators clash over health care reform’s impact on FEHBP

Republicans say bill could force feds out of their current insurance plans, while Democrats decry claims as scare tactics.

As House Democrats prepare to introduce new health care reform legislation this week, federal employees' health benefits once again became a political football in the debate over the bill. Sixteen Republican representatives wrote to Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y., to demand that he schedule hearings on reform proposals' potential impact on the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program.

Their letter reiterated a request that Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the ranking member on the oversight committee, made in July, asking Towns to explore whether FEHBP meets the requirements for a "qualified health benefits plan." Such plans would have to cover at least hospitalization; outpatient services; visits with doctors and other qualified health professionals; prescription drugs; treatment for physical rehabilitation, mental illness and substance abuse; preventative medicine; maternity care; and basic care for infants and children under age 21. Under a number of health care reform proposals, Americans would have to enroll in plans that have certain required characteristics, pay taxes for refusing to enroll, or move into a government-run health care program that has the required features.

Towns responded to Issa's initial request by noting that the House health care reform proposal under debate at the time had a five-year grace period that would allow health care plans to make changes to meet the definition of a "qualified health benefits plan." He said any changes to FEHBP would be minor and easy to accomplish within that grace period.

"I understand that some administrative and a small number of benefits-related adjustments would be necessary in 2018 in order for all of the individual plans offered under FEHBP to satisfy the applicable requirements of a qualified health benefits plan," Towns wrote in July. "However, there will not be a need for a significant overhaul of FEHBP."

In their letter on Wednesday, committee Republicans complained they "have not received an account of that work [Towns was doing on the health care reform bill], or further explanation of what the 'limited impact' on FEHBP actually entails."

Towns called their concern about federal employees' health care baseless, and said Republicans were trying to delay relevant hearings and votes on health care reform bills. Instead of being forced out of FEHBP because it doesn't meet the requirements, he said, federal employees would see improvements to their health care plans if reforms passed.

"Any suggestion that federal employees may be forced out of insurance coverage and subjected to an additional tax is false and has no basis in the text of the bill," Towns said in a statement. "Under [the bill Democrats are set to introduce], federal employees will remain in their current system, and will also benefit from the same improvements to health insurance plans that all other Americans will enjoy, such as ending co-payments for preventative medicine and automatic enrollment."