When Congress passed the Affordable Care Act, they did so with dozens of Republican amendments. One of those amendments was an attempt to create a “gotcha” moment for Democrats. Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) slipped something in that, if passed, would kick Congress off of the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program (FEHBP), and put them, and their staffers, onto the healthcare exchanges. There was some unintended fallout from that, and, as Roll Call reports, it appears that fallout continues.
Allen West wrote, on his blog, that when Congress enrolled in the Small Business Exchange in D.C., they did so individually, and while certifying that they each had 45 employees. According to West, this is fraud on the part of Congress. He’s quite correct that each member of Congress is an employee of the federal government, as are their staffers, and as such, it’s illegal for them to enroll in D.C.’s small business exchange as “small businesses.”
Where he, Judicial Watch, CNS News, and others, are getting it wrong, though, is why this has happened. The ACA stipulates that any employer with more than 50 employees must provide health insurance for those employees. People whose employers provide health insurance do not qualify for the subsidies on the exchanges. That’s not a big deal for members of Congress themselves, but for their staffers, it can be huge.
Besides that, the federal government has to provide health insurance for all of Congress and their staffers. The way that the Office of Personnel Management got around this was to pick up a portion of the costs that Congress, and its staffers, were to pay in premiums. This is where that ridiculous myth that Congress had written an exemption from Obamacare for itself came from.
In other words, Grassley’s amendment is coming back to bite all of Congress in a very big way. He tried to play a game, and now, everyone involved with Congress is caught in the middle of a weird situation that literally applies to nobody else.
One could argue that Congress and its staffers be required to sign up on the individual exchanges. However, there would be outrage for that, too, because OPM would still contribute part of their premiums, in accordance with the law.
One could also argue that OPM can no longer help with premiums at all. Someone, however, would notice that staffers suddenly can’t afford to live, and jump on the federal government for breaking the employer mandate. There is no good way for them to deal with this, especially in the eyes of a deeply distrustful public.
The ACA encouraged states to create two exchanges: One for individuals and families not covered by employer health coverage, and another for small businesses with fewer than 50 employees. Congress, having gotten kicked off of their employer-provided health plans, courtesy of Grassley, doesn’t fit into either of these. Allowing them to certify, individually, as small businesses with 45 employees, is how OPM is getting around this problem, according to a story on the not-at-all liberal CNBC.
While CNBC seems to agree that calling themselves small businesses is fraudulent behavior on Congress’ part (and we do admit that it’s kind of hard not to see it that way), they’ve acknowledged that there may be a silver lining to all of this: Lower costs for true small businesses. Congress’ staffers’ enrollment broadens the risk pool. If the risk pool is bigger, with healthier people, costs come down. That can help other small businesses.
It can also help Congressional staffers. Each member of Congress makes at least $174,000 per year. The vast majority of their staffers, however, make far, far less. Having them pay the full premiums for their health insurance could make being a Congressional staffer unaffordable. It would seem, from the looks of the lawsuit, from Allen West, and from other conservative outrage over this, that some don’t really care how this affects those people, who did nothing to deserve getting caught in the middle of the game like this.
The legal challenges are more attempts to paint Obamacare as the devil, and possibly undo it, one piece at a time. This falls into the same category as the lawsuits that claimed the individual mandate was illegal, and that the subsidies were illegal in states that didn’t have their own exchanges. On the surface, this looks like a legit gripe. However, digging a little deeper reveals the problem that caused this.
We could get rid of the whole problem once and for all with universal health coverage. That, however, would be too socialist of us, so it’s not happening anytime soon.
Unfortunately, when you decide to try to play not just politics, but immature, gambling politics, you wind up making things a lot worse than they need to be. This, despite how the conservative media and blogs are painting it, comes down to the monumentally bad idea that was supposed to be Republicans’ crowning “gotcha” moment.