No, Congress is not exempt from Obamacare

Affordable care act

Right wingers are in full spittle mode: Congress is exempt from Obamacare! they yell. If Obamacare is so great, they scream, why did Congress exempt itself from it?

Is Congress exempt from Obamacare?

The short answer is no.

The longer answer is here.

Today, lawmakers and the people who work in their offices get insurance via the Federal Employees Health Benefits Plan, or FEHBP. It’s the same health insurance option that other federal employees use. When the architects of the Affordable Care Act drew up legislation, they had no plans to meddle with this arrangement. Just like the people working for Intel or JCPenney would get to stay on their company health plans, the people working on Capitol Hill would get to stay on theirs.

Grassley had other ideas. Obamacare is creating new insurance marketplaces, one for each state, where people can choose their own insurance. The marketplaces are only for people who don’t have access to an employer policy. But Grassley suggested an exception. He introduced an amendment that would force members of Congress, and their advisers, to give up federal employee coverage and buy through the new exchanges instead.

Grassley insisted he wanted only to promote good public policy. If members of Congress were dependent on the exchanges, he suggested, they’d have a direct stake in their success. But Grassley was also the ranking Republican on the Finance Committee. And, by that point in the debate, he’d all but committed himself to opposing legislation. He almost certainly figured the Democrats would vote down his amendment, rather than relinquish federal employee coverage. And that would give Republicans a chance to pounce. If Obamacare coverage is good enough for you, the Republicans could then tell voters, why isn’t it good enough for them?

As it turns out, Grassley was wrong. Democrats didn’t reject the amendment. They accepted it, and now it’s part of the law. But that created a very weird situation. The federal government, like most large employers, not only provides the opportunity for its workers to get insurance. It also pays a large portion of the premium. Now that lawmakers and their advisers were going into the exchanges, what would happen to that contribution? Would they just lose the money?

The answer, the administration decided last week, is no. Lawmakers and their staffs could keep their employer contributions, and apply that money towards the cost of whatever insurance they buy in the exchanges. It’s actually true to Grassley’s ostensible purpose, which was making sure members of lawmakers and their advisers have a stake in the success of the exchanges.