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Republicans persist in peddling the myth of a congressional exemption from Obamacare

Myth_truth

This editorial in The Day, a Connecticut newspaper, NAILS IT:

There is no better way to make a federal law unpopular than to have Congress exempt itself from its provisions. No wonder then reports that Congress has exempted themselves and their staffs from the Affordable Care Act – Obamacare – is further eroding support for the law aimed at making sure all Americans have access to health care insurance.

However, the claim, while constructed on some shred of truth, is false. It is symbolic of what is wrong with Washington. It is a strategy meant to confuse and divert attention from the real issue. It is a substitute for engaging in genuine debate. The intent is to anger, rather than inform the public.

It is also perhaps the last resort of a cohort of Republicans in Congress who are moving toward the unprecedented step of trying to force the repeal of an enacted law by threatening to shut down the government or take the United States into default or both.

In other words, it is an act of blackmail. Agree to defund the Affordable Care Act or face the prospects of a government shutdown and a default that shakes the markets and damages the economy.

Sensible Republicans know this will not work. They recognize the ransom will not be paid. President Obama and the Democrats, who control the Senate, will not surrender on the president’s signature piece of legislation. Republicans will rightfully end up with the blame if these tactics force a crisis.

So having botched the politics, Republicans turn to the canard that Congress is exempting itself. No less than the Wall Street Journal, recognizing the shutdown-government strategy amounts to a circular firing squad, urged on its editorial pages that the GOP refocus on the congressional “carve-out.”

How did things get to this confused point? They got here because a Republican senator baited Democrats with a politically motivated amendment. During the health care debate back in 2009, Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley offered an amendment that congressional representatives and their staffs would have to get their insurance through the health insurance exchanges.

This made little sense because the intent of the exchanges is to provide a means for individuals and small companies to access affordable health insurance. Larger employers who provide health insurance and their workers will not participate.

The Federal Employees Health Benefits Program covers lawmakers and their staffs. There is no reason for them to be part of the exchange, but for the Grassley amendment. His expectation was that Democrats would oppose the amendment, giving Republicans a chance to make the charge of refusing to treat themselves and their staffs the same as anyone else.

However, the Democrats called his bluff and enacted it.

This brings us to the present discussion. The exchanges are readying to open. Barring a change, Congressmen and staff workers will utilize the exchanges to purchase insurance. Yet what about the $5,000 to $11,000 annually the government contributes to their health insurance premiums? Do they lose those because they have to utilize the exchanges, unlike workers for any other large employers?

The Office of Personnel Management, which administers the federal insurance program, said no, ruling that the federal government should continue to make contributions toward the premiums of lawmakers and their staffs on the exchanges.

This is the “special treatment,” the “exemption” that is the focus of the latest attacks. It ignores the fact that because of political game playing the law is forcing congressional staff workers and their families onto the exchanges, unlike all other workers in similar situations. They will keep the premium subsidies but could well end up with inferior plans.

There is no exemption, but that is not likely to stop the political attacks or the myth.

——

UPDATE: HERE‘s what the fact-checkers at CNN say about the matter:

ASSERTION:

President Obama exempted members of Congress from Obamacare…

FACTS:

When Obamacare was passed into law, Sen. Charles Grassley, the Iowa Republican, attached language to the bill that mandated members of Congress and their staffers would have to buy health insurance on the newly created health insurance exchanges. What nobody accounted for at the time was that members of Congress and their staffers currently have health insurance through their employer – the federal government. No other employer has been legally required to drop its employee’s health care plan and have them buy coverage on the exchanges.

Like most other large employers, the federal government contributes a portion to the premiums of its employees. In fact, like many employers, the federal government pays most of the premiums for its workers; an average of 72 percent on Capitol Hill. The law didn’t account for the continued employer contribution for these federal workers who would now be buying their insurance on the exchanges. The exchanges were designed to help people without health insurance and people with overly expensive health insurance. It became clear that without their employer contribution, members and their staffers would essentially be getting a cut in pay and benefits equal to thousands of dollars. Even Grassley, the provision’s author, had said the government should continue to contribute to lawmakers’ and staffers’ premiums. What the Obama administration has done is ruled that the congressional workers will continue to receive the employer contribution to help them buy their insurance on the exchange.

VERDICT:

False. Congress is no more exempt than any other employer who drops coverage and then helps employees purchase insurance on the exchanges.

——

UPDATE II: HERE‘s what FactCheck.org says:

Bogus claims about Congress being “exempt” date back to early 2010, when different health care bills were still being debated. Some Republicans claimed that Americans, except for members of Congress, would be forced into the government-run “public option” (which wasn’t part of the final bill that became law) or state-based exchanges (which are part of the law).

As we said previously, members of Congress get private health insurance through the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, which actually served as a model for the [Obamacare] exchanges. Federal workers pick from among many health plans. The exchanges would operate in the same way — like a marketplace for those shopping for private insurance.

But some Republicans pushed the idea that if the exchanges were good enough for other Americans, they should be good enough for Congress. So, an amendment by Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa was added to the Senate bill requiring that the federal government offer only health plans that were part of an exchange to members of Congress and their staffs. The law’s final language on this, written by Sen. Tom Coburn, says that: “the only health plans that the Federal Government may make available to Members of Congress and congressional staff with respect to their service as a Member of Congress or congressional staff shall be health plans that are — (I) created under this Act (or an amendment made by this Act); or (II) offered through an Exchange established under this Act.”

Congressional “staff” is defined as “all full-time and part-time employees employed by the official office of a Member of Congress, whether in Washington, DC or outside of Washington, DC.” As we reported before, Coburn said the provision wouldn’t apply to those working for committees or leadership staff, and a Congressional Research Service report agreed that could be the case.

In other words, the Affordable Care Act places on lawmakers and their staffs additional requirements that don’t pertain to other Americans with work-based insurance.

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