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For years, Congress has enjoyed a fantastic health benefits program, better than that of most Americans. But during the debate over ObamaCare, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) managed to get language into the bill that requires Members of Congress and their staff to purchase their insurance through a government-run health insurance exchange like every other citizen under ObamaCare. Naturally, some Members of Congress were none too happy about this, and lo and behold, Politico reported earlier this year that congressional leaders have quietly been looking for a way to exempt themselves from receiving the same (inferior) health benefits that they have foisted upon those who elected them.
This hypocrisy is made possible by a flaw in the Grassley amendment, which unfortunately is not absolutely specific regarding whether Congress is to receive the same (inferior) levels of insurance premium subsidies as other Americans, or the same (generous) subsidies it always has. The insurance premium subsidies under ObamaCare are not nearly as generous as what Congress is currently receiving – so, naturally, some Members have been looking for a way to keep their old, special deal. The Grassley amendment’s ambiguity has left the hypocrites with a big opening for mischief.
Congressmen and staffers are anxiously awaiting official word on this issue from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), which administers the Federal Employees Health Benefits (FEHB) plan and has the power to interpret the Grassley amendment. So far, OPM has been strangely silent, suggesting that it may be waiting for a safe moment to give Congress what it wants, when the American public is least likely to notice.
Under the generous FEHB plan, federal employees (including Members of Congress and their staff) get to select their health coverage from a menu of high-end options, and then the government picks up the lion’s share of the tab. By contrast, Americans who go into the exchanges will get much less generous subsidies.
Congressmen Pete Sessions (R-TX) complained to Politico that going into ObamaCare without the current generous subsidy is “going to hinder our ability with retention of members, it’s going to hinder our ability for members to take care of their families.” But it’s hard to sympathize with Congressmen who are earning $174,000 per year (close to four times the national average) merely having to pay the same premiums as the rest of their constituents.
It is true, sadly, that many congressional staffers fall into the younger age range set to be hit hardest by ObamaCare’s insurance cost increases in 2014, since the law is specifically designed to redistribute costs from older, less healthy people to young, healthy people. But instead of treating the underlying disease (that is, the health care law itself), Congress is just trying to alleviate the symptoms they themselves can feel, by exempting themselves from the worst of the law’s costs while leaving their constituents behind.
Congressman Dave Camp (R-MI) has introduced a bill (H.R.1780) that ensures that all federal employees, including not just Congress but also the President and most executive branch workers, will definitely be forced to purchase their insurance through the exchanges, which is certainly an important clarification.
However, the bill crucially neglects to specifically declare that federal employees do not still receive the higher subsidy levels, meaning that the OPM could potentially still grant Congress their loophole. A stronger, more specific, law is needed to ensure that Congress doesn’t find some way to extricate itself from the mess it has created for millions of Americans.
A just law is one that applies to all citizens equally, but apparently Congress believes that, to paraphrase Orwell, they are more equal than the rest of us. If Congress truly insists upon exempting itself from an unpopular, expensive, and unworkable law, perhaps it could do America a favor and exempt the rest of us too.