Federal Gov Staff to lose FEHBP

During a Communicating and Working with Congress seminar Ken Gold and I were teaching last week, I brought to the attention of the class the prospect that congressional staff may seem a little more ornery than normal due to the fact that they may be losing their government health insurance.  While many of the Congressional Fellows had heard some inkling about this, almost none of the others were aware — but all were horrified by the details.

Don’t worry too much, only a small segment of staff — 540 Members of Congress (and delegates) along with their personal office staff — will be affected. But, if the current law is not changed, it is true that those toiling on Capitol Hill and in District Offices around the country will only be able to obtain health care coverage from programs created in the Affordable Care Act, or the currently non-existent Exchanges.  In addition, unlike EVERY OTHER federal government employee, they may have to pay 100% of the premium with after-tax income.

This is not new.  There are press reports going back to April of 2010 about the so-called Grassley amendment which takes Members and their staff out of the OPM system and consequently, out of the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program (FEHBP).  But it is only recently that the full implications of the law are starting to be reported.

When I dug a little deeper to understand what happened, I was interested in how a political gotcha amendment turned into a punish congressional personal office staff amendment.  The original Grassley amendment (amendment O) as passed by the Senate Finance Committee was intended to require any employer contribution on behalf of ALL congressional staff go directly to insurers in the Exchanges.  Maybe not the best to be out of FEHBP but congressional staff would still have the subsidy from OPM and would only have to pay approximately 28% of the premium with pre-tax dollars.

However, Finance was not the only Senate committee tasked with writing health care reform legislation in the Senate; the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee had a say as well.  During HELP’s consideration a few months earlier, Sen. Coburn won support for a similar provision by a vote of 12-11 (with three Democrats voting in favor).  After winning the vote, Sen. Coburn acknowledged he expected his amendment to be dropped in conference; a conference that never happened.

But when Majority Leader Reid combined the Finance and HELP products, he chose Sen. Coburn’s amendment (Sec. 1312) over Sen. Grassley’s amendment (Sec. 1101).  As a result, Members of Congress and their personal staff, but not committee or leadership staff, were dropped from the FEHBP, as was the provision that would have provided an employer contribution.  Consequently, staff in Members’ personal offices are living under a threat of having to absorb the entire cost of their health care starting on January 1, 2014.

Many conservative commentators are expressing little sympathy.  They say Members and staff are just in for a taste of what all other Americans face.  But a recently released survey by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation showed that, while the number of people obtaining Employer Sponsored Insurance has fallen dramatically from 70% to 60%, the percentage of subsidy that the employer pays has remained fairly constant at 75-80%, slightly more generous than the FEHBP’s 72% (page 3).

The Office of Personnel Management is expected to decide in the coming months if the language of the Affordable Care Act allows for a continued employer subsidy for Members and their staff.  If they decide it is not, expect a move in Congress to fix the problem, at least for staff, and a strong push by conservatives to keep the no-subsidy system in place.

The fear should not only be whether congressional staff head for the exits (which undoubtedly they will), but whether conservatives decide that the entire federal government is pampered and that what is good for Congress is good for all government workers.  Think about whether you would keep your job if the 70% employer subsidy and the ability to pay the other 30% in pre-tax dollars disappeared.

So, cut congressional staff a little slack if they seem a bit snippy when you call.

Harkins_100x100Mark Harkins is a Senior Fellow at the Government Affairs Institute.

Bio: Mark Harkins
E-mail: mbh62@georgetown.edu
Twitter: @mbh1165