By Amie Parnes and Elise Viebeck - 11/21/13 06:50 PM EST
Older congressional staff say their out-of-pocket healthcare costs will rise three or four times after they enter the ObamaCare insurance exchanges.
The economic shock has led Democratic chiefs of staff to call for changing the rules so that their staffers won’t take the economic hit.
“Simply unaffordable,” Minh Ta, chief of staff to Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.), wrote in an email to fellow Democratic chiefs of staff on Thursday afternoon.
Ta’s email, sent to other House Democratic chiefs of staff, said staffers above the age of 59 felt a “shock to the system” upon seeing plan prices on the District of Columbia's new insurance marketplace.
At issue are employees designated as “official office staff.” That designation placed them in D.C.’s ObamaCare marketplace.
Under ObamaCare, lawmakers and their staff were required to leave the Federal Employee Health Benefit Program in order to obtain health coverage on the new marketplaces.
Republicans advocated for the provision as a way to impose the Affordable Care Act's new insurance system on Capitol Hill.
What is not widely known is that, under guidance from the chief administrative officer of the House, offices had discretion about whether to classify their workers as “official staff” or “unofficial staff.”
Workers designated as official must obtain healthcare on the exchanges, while those designated as unofficial are allowed to keep their federal employee plans.
Lawmakers got guidance about the designations, they complained, just days before the deadline for making decisions on Oct. 31.
In his email, Ta noted that it was difficult for congressional staff to see how much they would pay for coverage on D.C.'s exchange before November.
While prices for plans were available on the site starting in October, there was no tool for calculating how much the federal government subsidy would make a difference, sources said.
Staffers also said they were discouraged from accessing the site until Nov. 1, just after the Oct. 31 deadline for submitting their staff classifications. The enrollment period for Congress is Nov. 11 through Dec. 9.
Ta wrote that House administrators are refusing to allow him to change workers' designation until next year.
“I am asking for a solution now though because I will lose staff in my office because of this snafu,” Ta wrote in his email.
“I mentioned to payroll and House [administration] that it was unfair for our offices to make this designation without allowing our staff the ability [to] actually go on the [marketplace] to compare rates.”
Asked about the email, Ta said that the office is “not trying to blame anybody," especially the White House.
The frustration, he explained, is that his office and others are dissatisfied that lawmakers and staff are being treated differently from other federal employees.
“We’re strong, strong supporters of the [Affordable Care Act],” said Moore’s press secretary, Staci Cox.
Other offices on Capitol Hill said they're fearful of workers leaving due to the changes in health insurance. Members of both parties have repeatedly warned that top talent could lose if healthcare benefits are significantly eroded.
“Obviously staff turnover’s a concern,” one Democratic aide said. “We’re losing one staffer, for reasons you could say are related to this.”
One staffer familiar with the controversy said it's possible that lawmakers could reclassify their workers through creative means, like firing and then rehiring them.
“I don't know what would happen in that situation,” the staffer said. “But it's pretty clear that as long as you work for the same member, you're under that classification for the year.”
Both Ta and another chief of staff expressed hopes that House offices would be able reverse their decisions to name employees as "official office staff," which places them in D.C.'s ObamaCare marketplace.
“Our office supports allowing redesignation. We agree,” wrote Glenn Everett Rushing, who works for Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas).
The treatment of lawmakers and their staff have been controversial for some time.
Conservatives blasted the Obama administration in August after an announcement that lawmakers and staff would continue receiving a generous federal employee healthcare contribution not available to other people on the exchanges.
The subsidy has been targeted by Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), whose amendments seeking to repeal it became part of negotiations to reopen the government.
Vitter and others blast the employee subsidy alongside other administrative moves that have granted flexibility under ObamaCare to certain interests.
The administration has done other things to help various groups, notably by delaying until January 2015 the mandate for employers to offer insurance.
— Mike Lillis contributed to this story.