Senator Reignites Discussion of Obamacare Exemption for Congress

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., requested information on how congressional staffers got permission to use a small business exchange. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., requested information on how congressional staffers got permission to use a small business exchange. J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Just weeks after the Republican effort to roll back the 2010 Affordable Care Act failed on the Senate floor, one GOP lawmaker is reviving the debate over a regulation allowing members of Congress and their staff to purchase health insurance on an exchange meant for small businesses and receive an employer subsidy for their plans.

Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Ron Johnson, R-Wis., sent a letter to acting Office of Personnel Management Director Kathleen McGettigan Wednesday requesting all records related to OPM’s adoption of a regulation allowing employees of Congress to purchase insurance on the D.C. Small Business Health Options Plan exchange and receive an employer subsidy, in this case equivalent to the percentage of premiums the government pays under the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program.

Ahead of the passage of the Affordable Care Act, Republicans had successfully added an amendment requiring members of Congress and their staff to purchase their insurance on the Obamacare exchanges. In 2013, OPM implemented the rule allowing use of the small business exchange despite the fact that Congress is not a small business.

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That rule is a long-running source of controversy. Then-Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., placed a hold on the nomination of Katherine Archuleta as OPM director to try to leverage information from the agency about the rule. The issue also prevented the confirmation of Beth Cobert to lead the office—she ran OPM on an acting basis from July 2015 until January 2017.

“The [D.C. Small Business Health Options Plan] exchange is intended for employers with less than 50 employees, yet Congress employs more than 16,000 people,” Johnson wrote. “Without this classification, members of Congress and their staff would be required to purchase health insurance on the individual exchange, where no employer contributions are permitted.”

In 2014, Johnson filed a lawsuit challenging the rule, but it was dismissed for lack of standing.

“My intent was to prevent the unlawful usurpation of legislative power by the Obama administration,” Johnson wrote of the legal effort.

The chairman gave a deadline of Aug. 31 for OPM to fulfill his request.

The letter came shortly after the White House confirmed it would not follow through on President Trump’s threats to cease payments for Obamacare cost sharing reductions. As part of those threats, Trump alluded to ending the so-called “bailout” for Congress.

“If ObamaCare is hurting people, [and] it is, why shouldn’t it hurt the insurance companies [and] why should Congress not be paying what public pays?” Trump tweeted last month.

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