GOP lawmakers under pressure to decline government health plan

Congressional Republicans who assailed the Democrats’ healthcare law in the run-up to the midterm elections are facing pressure to decline government-provided coverage when they take office.

GOP Reps.-elect Bobby Schilling (Ill.) and Mike Kelly (Pa.), both opponents of the law, have already vowed to refuse government-backed health insurance when they come to Capitol Hill next year. 

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"I have term-limited myself," Schilling told ABC News last week. "I am not taking the pension. I am not taking pay raises, and my family and I are bringing our own healthcare to Washington, D.C."

Other freshman lawmakers who ran on a promise to “repeal and replace” the healthcare law could be pressed to follow suit.

A survey released Tuesday found that the majority of voters want congressional opponents of the new healthcare law to decline government-provided healthcare coverage when they take office. 

Fifty-three percent of voters in a survey from Public Policy Polling said lawmakers who ran against the reforms should stay true to their rhetoric and refuse government coverage. Among Republican voters in the survey, that figure jumped to 58 percent. 

The survey is just the latest indication that lawmakers who ran in opposition to the healthcare law might find themselves in a pickle as the reforms kick in and lawmakers are forced to buy their health insurance from state-based exchanges.

Currently, members of Congress and their staffs get healthcare coverage through the Federal Employees Health Benefit Plan, which grants stipends to cover the cost of their insurance plans.

A spokesman for Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), the Speaker-designate for the incoming GOP majority, said there’s nothing hypocritical about Republicans accepting congressional health coverage.  

"Boehner, like Speaker Pelosi, Sen. Reid and tens of millions of Americans, receives health coverage through his employer. That has nothing to do with ObamaCare, which will wreck Americans' health care and bankrupt our country," Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said in a statement.

But Democrats see things differently. On Tuesday, Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) sent a letter to GOP leaders signed by 60 Democrats arguing that critics of a government-backed coverage expansion should "walk that walk" and also refuse their federally subsidized coverage. 

"If your conference wants to deny millions of Americans affordable health care, your members should walk that walk," Crowley wrote in a letter to Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). "You cannot enroll in the very kind of coverage that you want for yourselves, and then turn around and deny it to Americans who don't happen to be Members of Congress."

Outside groups are getting in on the act. The American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), a union that is among the biggest financial backers of Democrats, on Tuesday released a statement calling on lawmakers who campaigned on repeal to put their money where their mouths are.

“If they enroll in the taxpayer-funded healthcare system provided to members of Congress, they deserve to be denounced as hypocrites,” AFSCME President Gerald McEntee said. “If you campaigned for repeal, you should go without taxpayer-funded coverage first.”

The liberal activist group Americans United for Change, meanwhile, is taking aim at Republican Rep.-elect Andy Harris (Md.), who reportedly demanded last week to know why his congressional healthcare benefits will not begin immediately upon his taking office in January. 

Harris, a physician, won his campaign over freshman Rep. Frank Kratovil (D) in part by pressuring the congressman to say where he stood on repealing healthcare reform. 

Americans United for Change is running a radio ad in the Baltimore and Salisbury, Md., media markets that calls on Harris to either drop the federal coverage he receives as a member of Congress or cease his opposition to the healthcare reforms signed into law by President Obama.

"Call Congressman Harris and tell him to stop whining about his healthcare and start fighting for ours," the ad says. "If he wants to deny Maryland families quality, affordable healthcare, tell him to start with his own."

Passed in March along strict party lines, the healthcare reform law was among the central wedge issues in the midterm elections. A majority — if not all — of the 60-plus incoming GOP freshmen ran on a platform of repealing the reforms in full. 

Republican leaders included repeal as a central tenet of their "Pledge to America," which was released — not coincidentally — on the six-month anniversary of the law's enactment. 

"We offer a plan to repeal and replace the government takeover of healthcare with common-sense solutions focused on lowering costs and protecting American jobs," the pledge reads.

Complicating the repeal effort, some of the most popular consumer protections contained in the law — things like a ban oninsurance companies denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions — are intertwined with some of the least popular provisions, such as the individual insurance mandate.

Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), an adamant supporter of the law, is challenging Republicans to make good on their repeal promise. He vowed to introduce a series of bills next week that would roll back some of the most popular provisions.

The congressman said his legislation — titled HIPA-CRIT (Health Insurance Protects America—Can't Repeal IT) — will give Republicans a chance to "put up, or sit down" on their campaign promise to repeal the eight-month-old law.

"This will be the big chance for Republicans to do what they've vowed to do," the 13-term member said. "These bills will be their chance to at long last restore liberty and repeal the evil monster they've dubbed 'Obamacare.' "

Ackerman has begun circulating a letter to fellow lawmakers telling them to "Go ahead, make my day. Become a cosponsor.”

Beginning in 2014, the healthcare reform law creates state-based insurance exchanges, which are virtual marketplaces where consumers can compare plans based on benefits and cost. Patients earning between 138 percent and 400 percent of the poverty level will be eligible for federal subsidies for plans purchased on the exchanges. Wealthier families can use the exchanges as a menu for convenience, but won't receive federal help.

The law also requires members of Congress and their staff to shift out of the Federal Employees Health Benefit Plan and use their stipend instead to buy insurance on the exchanges.

The new healthcare law is estimated to provide coverage to an additional 32 million Americans over the next decade.

— Jordan Fabian and Julian Pecquet contributed to this report.