House OKs religious exemptions to having a healthcare plan

House Democrats joined Republicans on Tuesday to pass legislation that would expand an exemption under ObamaCare for people who don't want health insurance for religious reasons.

The Republican House has passed dozens of bills to chip away at ObamaCare over the last few years, some of which had support from more than 30 Democrats. But the bill up today was considered under a suspension of the rules, which meant that support from about 50 Democrats was needed in order for the bills to pass with a two-thirds majority vote.

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Its easy passage by voice vote sets up the possibility that it could be considered by the Senate, unlike the dozens of other bills that were mostly supported by Republicans and then ignored by Senate Democrats.

Members approved the Equitable Access to Care and Health (EACH) Act, H.R. 1814. The bill would let people avoid buying health insurance under ObamaCare if they could cite a religious reason.

People seeking an exemption would have to include sworn statements in their tax returns explaining their objection to health insurance.

Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.), who sponsored the bill, said ObamaCare currently exempts only those people who are part of a major religion, which leaves no room for others who also believe they must be exempted.

"Today's bill must become law," he said. "Among the many problems with the Affordable Care Act, the current conscience exemption only protects religious exemptions of a few select faiths."

Democrats said they worry the IRS would not be able to enforce the new language. House Energy and Commerce Committee ranking member Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said the IRS would have to define what a "sincerely held religious belief" is and enforce these exemptions.

"This is impossibly difficult to enforce, and frankly, it is not a role we want the IRS to take on," Waxman said.

The bill says anyone who gets a religious exemption and then seeks medical treatment would have their exemption revoked. But Waxman said the IRS would have no way of monitoring people who later decide to seek treatment.

Ways and Means Committee ranking member Sandy Levin (D-Mich.) added that Republicans passed a bill just days ago ensuring the IRS cannot ask people about their political beliefs, and said it makes no sense that they would want the IRS to enforce this proposal.

But Schock downplayed these issues by noting the language is based on exemption language in the Massachusetts healthcare law, and said after several years, only 6,500 people have sought the exemption.

The EACH Act does not change the Obama administration's ruling that some religious-affiliated groups must provide health insurance that covers contraception. Instead, it only provides exceptions to the individual mandate that requires people to buy health insurance under ObamaCare.

Later in the evening, members passed two other tweaks to ObamaCare, again with bipartisan support.

One was the Protecting Volunteer Firefighters and Emergency Responders Act, H.R. 3979, which passed 410-0. This legislation is designed to ensure that volunteer emergency services workers don't have to be offered a health insurance plan.

Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Pa.), who sponsored the bill, says the IRS has indicated it could treat these workers as full-time employees who need to be offered a health plan. The IRS has since indicated it would not make this determination, but Barletta says legislation is the best way to ensure this does not happen.

The other was the Hire More Heroes Act, H.R. 3474. This legislation would let companies not treat veterans as full-time employees under ObamaCare, which could help them stay under the 50-employee threshold above which they must offer health insurance to their workers.

The bill passed 406-1; the only "no" vote came from a Democrat.

Under the bill, veterans could be exempted from the full-time employee count if they were covered by the federal veterans health program. Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.), the sponsor, has said his bill would help companies cope with the law better and also create an incentive to hire veterans, and members of both parties agreed during floor debate.

"If they hire a veteran under this legislation, that won't count for purposes of determining if they have enough workers to trigger the mandate," Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas) said on the House floor. "If that isn't an incentive to hire more veterans, I don't know what is."

— This story was updated at 7:03 p.m. to reflect the late votes.