Perks

How Congress Got Special Treatment Under Obamacare


Senator Grassley

Photograph by Cliff Owen/AP Photo

Senator Grassley

Back when Congress passed the Affordable Care Act in March 2010, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) suggested that lawmakers and their staff should have to get their health coverage through the insurance exchanges created by the law. “It’s only fair and logical that administration leaders and congressional staff, who fought so hard to overhaul of [sic] America’s health care system, experience it themselves,” the Iowa Republican and Obamacare foe said at the time. Lawmakers adopted the plan, putting them in the same boat as Americans trying to buy coverage through the new, often balky health exchanges.

Well, not quite. It turns out Congress is getting—surprise!—special treatment, as the New York Times reported today. Among the perks: face-to-face help enrolling in the District of Columbia’s health exchange and customer service lines from insurers dedicated to congressional staff.

The exchanges were created to help people buy health plans if they don’t already get coverage from their jobs or government programs such as Medicare or Medicaid. They’re intended for the self-employed, early retirees, and those between jobs, as well as small businesses that don’t have bargaining power with insurance companies. It’s a consequence of pure political theater that Capitol Hill staffers have to shop for coverage this way, since there is no policy reason to shunt a tiny subset of the federal workforce into the insurance exchanges. As employees of the nation’s largest employer—the U.S. government—they already have access to good, affordable group plans, like most American professionals who work for large organizations.

Forcing congressional staff off the federal health plan and into the exchanges raised some tricky questions. Unlike many people shopping in the exchanges, congressional workers aren’t eligible for subsidies because their employer offers affordable coverage. Thanks to Grassley’s law, however, they can’t use it.

Over the summer, bureaucrats found a work-around: “[T]he government would continue to pay the employer contribution for congressional health benefits at the same rate as if members were still on the federal plan,” USA Today reported. This avoided a situation in which Hill staffers—many of them twentysomethings on relatively modest salaries—would have to pay full sticker price for insurance plans, as if they were self-employed.

This morning Bloomberg Businessweek asked Grassley’s office whether the senator or his staff are taking advantage of the assistance reported in the Times article. No response yet.

While some lawmakers think they should have the same insurance shopping experience as everyday Americans in the exchanges, others have floated the opposite idea: Let ordinary citizens buy into the federal employees’ health plan. That was a central piece of John Kerry’s health policy when he was running for president a decade ago. The idea was recently resurrected (on Twitter, at least) by conservative Representative Darrell Issa (R-Calif.). “I’m proposing we #ReplaceObamaCare and give all Americans access to the same affordable, high-quality health coverage as members of Congress,” he tweeted.

And no special treatment for Congress. Right?

John_tozzi
Tozzi is a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

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