President Obama exempted members of Congress from Obamacare.
“President Obama recently issued a special rule for Congress and congressional staff to get a special subsidy to purchase health insurance on the Obamacare Exchange unavailable to every other American at similar income levels,” said Republican Sen. David Vitter. “That’s an exemption, plain and simple.”
We think this matter is “in dispute.”
Fact: When Obamacare was passed into law, Sen. Charles Grassley, the Iowa Republican, attached language – later revised by Majority Leader Harry Reid - to the bill mandating that members of Congress and their staffers would have to buy health insurance on the newly created health insurance exchanges. What nobody accounted for at the time was that members of Congress and their staffers currently have health insurance through their employer – the federal government through a program called the Federal Employees Health Benefits Plan (FEHBP). No other business has been legally required to drop health insurance for its employees.
Like most large employers, the federal government contributes a portion to the premiums of its employees. In fact, like many employers, the federal government pays most of the premiums for its workers; an average of 72 percent on Capitol Hill. The new provision didn’t account for the continued employer contribution for these federal workers who would now be buying their insurance on the exchanges. The exchanges were designed to help people without health insurance and people with overly expensive health insurance. It became clear that without their employer contribution, members and their staffers would essentially be getting a cut in pay and benefits equal to thousands of dollars. Even Grassley, the provision’s author, had tried to amend to law in order to allow the government to continue to contribute to lawmakers’ and staffers’ premiums. What the Obama administration has done is rule that the lawmakers and their staffs will continue to receive the employer contribution to help them buy their insurance on the exchange.
Originally we declared Vitter’s assertion to be wrong since any company can decide to help pay for policies that its workers purchase on the exchange so allowing representatives and staff to do so would not be an “exemption.” That notion has been challenged by conservative critics of Obamacare who argue that under existing federal statutes Congress had to specifically pass legislation authorizing the premium subsidies for any insurance program other than FEHBP. Since congress did not do this, the administration, at the behest of Congressional Democrats, and, according to Politico, Speaker John Boehner, unilaterally extended premium contributions. By doing this, the critics argue, the administration “exempted” Congress from the law.
The administration takes issue with this, asserting that another provision in existing federal law gives the Office of Personnel Management the power to contribute to health insurance for federal “employees” and the ACA did not remove lawmakers and Congressional staff from the statutory definition of federal “employee.”
This sounds like something the courts will have to sort out. So, rather than declaring Vitter’s assertion to be false, prudence suggests that we label it, “in dispute.”