President Obama has spent a lot of time recently traveling the country touting the merits of his health care law. One audience very close to home is growing increasingly anxious about the financial implications of the new coverage: members of Congress and their personal staffs.
Under a wrinkle that dates back to enactment of the law, members of Congress and thousands of their aides are required to get their coverage through new state-based markets known as insurance exchanges.
But the law does not provide any obvious way for the federal government to continue paying its share of the premiums for the comprehensive coverage.
If the government cannot do so, it could mean an additional expense of $5,000 a year for individuals and $11,000 for families under some of the most popular plans.
Not surprisingly, that idea is unpopular on Capitol Hill.
The payment problem was identified 10 days after President Obama signed the health care law in March 2010. Since then neither Congress nor the administration has addressed it.
With the exchanges scheduled to open in October, the Obama administration is struggling to come up with a creative interpretation of the health care law that would allow the federal government to kick in for insurance as private employers do, but so far a solution hasn’t been identified.
The issue is politically charged because the White House and Congress are highly sensitive to any suggestion that lawmakers or their aides are getting special treatment under the health law. The administration is already under fire from Republicans for delaying a requirement that larger businesses offer insurance to their full-time employees.
The Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, the nation’s largest employer-sponsored health insurance program, covers more than eight million people, including government employees and their family members. It offers dozens of competing plans and has been cited as a model by members of both parties.
In battles over the health care law in 2009-10, Republicans proposed a requirement for lawmakers and aides to join the exchanges, and Democrats accepted it. It has been a headache for many in Congress ever since.
The 2010 law generally requires lawmakers and aides who work in their personal offices to get coverage through the exchanges. That implies that they would no longer receive coverage through the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program.
The law does not clearly authorize the government to pay premiums for federal employees who obtain insurance through the exchanges. Nor does it authorize the government to reimburse federal employees who buy health insurance on their own.
Thousands of Missourians who do not get to participate in Medicaid expansion due to the state’s decision to opt out know exactly how Congress feels…they too are worried how their health care will be covered. Ironic isn’t it.