By Sam Baker - 04/26/13 12:06 AM EDT
Democratic leaders said Thursday they’re not seeking an exemption from a central requirement of ObamaCare — that members of Congress and their staff purchase healthcare coverage through insurance exchanges.
Republicans spent the day hammering Democrats for allegedly seeking to carve themselves out of a requirement in the healthcare law.
“Nobody is exempting anybody from anything,” one Democratic aide said.
The healthcare law requires lawmakers and congressional staff to buy their healthcare coverage through the newly created insurance exchanges.
Democrats have raised questions about the mechanics of that requirement, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) both said Thursday they do not believe the mandate should be lifted.
Reid spokesman Adam Jentleson flatly denied a report that the majority leader had sought an exemption for lawmakers and their staffers.
“There are not now, have never been, nor will there ever be any discussions about exempting members of Congress or Congressional staff from Affordable Care Act provisions that apply to any employees of any other public or private employer offering health care,” Jentleson said.
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Seizing on the same report of a possible “exemption,” published Thursday by Politico, Republicans accused Democrats of trying to give themselves and their staffers a different set of rules than Americans who will purchase coverage through exchanges.
Republicans condemned the idea of an exemption and said it showed Democrats were acknowledging that the law is unworkable.
Democrats rejected that characterization; they said lawmakers and their staff members should still be required to purchase through the exchanges.
The controversy over an exemption is “completely made up,” the Democratic aide said.
The issue some Democrats want to address relates to the mechanics of moving lawmakers and staff into the exchanges.
Normally, lawmakers and staff get their health coverage through the system for federal employees.
The federal government, like most large employers, makes a sizeable contribution to cover the cost of its employees’ healthcare plans. In some cases, the federal government pays up to 75 percent of workers’ healthcare costs.
It’s not clear, though, whether lawmakers and staff could keep receiving an employer contribution once they buy coverage through an exchange.
The healthcare law doesn’t speak to that question, and the agency that manages federal benefits hasn’t yet made a determination.
If members and staff can’t keep their employer contribution, many would be forced to cover the entire cost of their healthcare plans.
Staffers whose total household income is less than about $45,000 per year by themselves — or $94,000 for a family of four — would be eligible for subsidies to help pay for their policies, just like anyone else who uses the exchanges.
Staffers and members with higher incomes would have to foot the entire bill for their coverage.
There has been some discussion, aides said, of whether Congress should step in to ensure that federal employees who buy through the exchanges get the same employer contribution as the rest of the federal workforce.
That’s not an exemption, but it’s still controversial.
Michael Steel, a spokesman for Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), said Democrats shouldn’t look for any bipartisan support if the federal human-resources agency says staffers and members are on their own.
“The Speaker would like to see resolution of this problem, along with the other nightmares created by Washington Democrats’ health law, which is why he supports full repeal,” Steel said in a statement.
“In the meantime, it is Democrats’ problem to solve. He will not sneak any language into bills to solve it for them — and the Democratic leadership knows that.”
Reid’s spokesman said Congress does not need to step in to ensure that lawmakers have the same experience as the general public.
“Senator Reid is committed to ensuring that all members of Congress and Congressional staff experience the benefits of the Affordable Care Act in exactly the same way as every other American,” he said.
“He believes that this is the effect of the legislation as written, and that therefore no legislative fix is necessary.”
Pelosi said she believes the law allows lawmakers and staff to remain inside the system for federal employees, thus keeping their employer contributions — they just have to buy policies that are also offered on an exchange.
Pelosi noted that some congressional staff, such as aides who work for a committee instead of an individual lawmaker, wouldn’t be covered by the healthcare reform law’s requirement to use the exchanges.
Congress should level the playing field by moving all staffers and members into the exchanges, she said.
“The bill has been written, it’s a question of interpretation, and we want everybody to be treated the same,” she said at a news conference Thursday.