WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration told lawmakers on Thursday that the federal government would continue contributing to their health care premiums and the health care premiums of their aides once they enrolled in the newly created insurance exchanges.
The decision was months, if not years, in the making. And it put to rest one of the unresolved issues created by the Affordable Care Act. But it also provided critics of the law with another reason to pounce.
Sen John Cornyn (R-Texas) called it an "outrageous exemption for Congress." Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) decried the "closed-door deal to fix Obamacare" for Congress only. "What the flip about fixing it for America?" he asked for good measure. Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Texas) argued that "Obama should exempt EVERYONE from ObamaCare."
In actuality, no one is getting an exemption. The decision to have the Office of Personnel Management continue its contribution to health care premiums simply restored the original intent of the law, as written by a Republican senator.
During the crafting of the Affordable Care Act, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) attempted to trip up Democrats by offering up an amendment that said members of Congress and their aides would be required to obtain their health care coverage from the newly created exchanges. His proposal read as follows (Amendment O):
This amendment would require that, notwithstanding any other provision of law, beginning in 2013, Members of Congress and Congressional staff must use their employer contribution (adjusted for age rating) to purchase coverage through a state-based exchange, rather than using the traditional selection of plans offered through the Federal Employees Health Benefits Plan (FEHBP).
The language here was fairly unambiguous. Members and their aides could use their traditional employer contributions to purchase health care coverage through the Obamacare exchanges. Grassley expected that the gambit would embarrass the White House. Instead, Democrats jumped at the proposal as a way to show solidarity behind the law.
Over time, however, the bill went through various revisions, and it became less clear which staffers would be required to participate in the exchanges. The language concerning the coverage subsidy was stripped out, leaving unanswered whether members and their aides would continue to get federal help.
Congress grew increasingly worried that without the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program -- which contributed nearly 75 percent of premium payments -- the cost of health care would skyrocket and talented Hill staffers would be encouraged to flee for better jobs. But it wasn't until this week that the issue was finalized, with the Obama administration confirming that the contributions would continue.
The Huffington Post reached out toGrassley's office for reaction but did not get a response. However, a former Republican congressional staffer familiar with the amendment said that the final ruling to keep the contribution in place matched the original intent of the provision.
"The intent was that Congress would be required to get the same plans that are available in the exchange and that the [Federal Employees Health Benefits Plan] would continue to operate," said the former staffer, who would only speak about the initial goal of the amendment on condition of anonymity. "The employer contribution, the tax treatment of it, the contributions by staff, the amount of them, every respect would remain intact."
"It would have been a much different notion if the amendment would have been to explicitly end the federal government contribution," the staffer added. "You can imagine that the kinds of concerns being raised now -- about staff and their ability to recruit and retain expertise -- would have come up at the time the amendment was offered."