U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey has spent four-plus years in political struggle against every nook and cranny of the Affordable Care Act.
And the Marietta Republican says he still doesn’t know how he will navigate the law’s insurance exchanges for himself.
Capitol Hill, home to some of the best informed foes and fans of the law known as Obamacare, is in a state of confusion as the law rolls out this fall — a symptom of the continued conflict around the act’s real-world effects.
The law boots members of Congress and their staffs from their generous Federal Employees Health Benefits plans at year’s end, meaning they will have to select an insurance plan from exchanges designed for those who lack employer-based health insurance.
With enrollment scheduled to begin Oct. 1, a battle is raging over whether the government will continue to help pay for the insurance plans and whether some staff members will be exempt.
The Obama administration in a preliminary ruling has allowed the government to continue its subsidy of about 75 percent of health insurance costs for members and staff. A final ruling from the Office of Personnel Management is expected sometime next month. It is already under assault from Republicans in Congress who backed the provision to force themselves and staffers onto exchanges, a move opponents say was mainly political.
Gingrey, who is running for Senate next year, has introduced a bill that would eliminate the employer subsidy, leaving members and staff to buy health insurance on the exchanges and only receive a subsidy if their incomes are low enough. Gingrey, whose House salary is $174,000 a year, said if his bill passes it will personally cost him $5,000 to $6,000 a year.
“It is really resonating,” Gingrey said of the administration’s decision to keep the subsidies. “People are furious.”
The hyperpartisanship surrounding the Affordable Care Act has further inflamed the debate, with Republicans seeking to denounce and tear down the law at every turn, and Democrats digging in to defend it. House conservatives are rallying behind a plan by U.S. Rep. Tom Graves, a Republican from Ranger, to delay the entire law for a full year as part of a spending bill to keep the government running.
All but three of Georgia’s 16 members of Congress now are on the federal employees’ plan. Most of them are in limbo but expect to enroll by Jan. 1 in a health insurance plan on Georgia’s exchange, which will be set up and operated by the federal government because the state’s fiercely anti-ACA Republican leadership elected not to have the state do it.
Michael Andel, chief of staff to Atlanta Democratic U.S. Rep. David Scott, said the effect of going on a state exchange could depend on where you live.
“You could be better off (than the federal employees’ plan) if you went to the exchange in some states, possibly, and some (members) could be much worse off just based on the state,” he said. Andel said he expects to buy the same plan he currently has on the “robust” Virginia exchange, but he isn’t sure yet.
“Most staffers on the Hill have no clue what’s going to happen,” Andel said.
Dan Strodel, Chief Administrative Officer of the U.S. House, sent a memo to all members and staff last week saying “it will not be possible to confirm plan options, costs, benefits, or which House staff will be affected until (the Obama administration) issues final regulations, which could very well be after the exchanges have already opened.”
One of the remaining unsolved questions is whether staff who work for committees and leadership offices, as opposed to individual members, will lose their plans.
Some Georgia congressmen and senators are not personally affected by the dispute, as they have alternatives to joining the exchanges.
U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican, is on the federal employees’ plan now but plans to enroll in Medicare on Jan. 1. He turns 69 in December.
Savannah Republican U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston continues to pay for the state of Georgia health plan he had since his state House days.
Kingston said members and staff should not keep their federal subsidies on the exchanges, and he has heard the same from folks around the state as he campaigns for the U.S. Senate.
“I think there’s a broad brush that anybody who was in the room when this thing was passed should suffer the maximum discomfort caused by it,” Kingston said.
While the Affordable Care Act was being amended in 2009, U.S. Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Tom Coburn, R-Okla., both of whom opposed the law, pushed the idea that members and staff should be forced onto the exchanges. Democrats resisted attempts to put President Barack Obama and others in the administration into the exchanges as well.
“They’ve almost contorted themselves,” Andel said of Republicans, primarily to send a message. “It got in, and now they have to deal with it.”
This year the administration — under pressure from Congressional leaders, according to news reports — decided to continue the employer subsidy for members and staff as they buy the new exchange plans. Multiple proposals in the House and Senate seek to reverse the decision, potentially putting members in the awkward spot of voting to cut their staffers’ pay.
If the administration’s decision is reversed, members and staff — like all enrollees in the exchanges — would receive a sliding-scale federal subsidy if they make four times the federal poverty level or less: about $46,000 for a single person or $94,000 for a family of four. Some staff would meet the criteria, but many others would not.
Part of the concern for lawmakers is that taking away health insurance benefits will make Capitol Hill a less desirable place to work and prompt some staffers to leave.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said in a floor speech Tuesday that for Republicans to seek “to end the contribution for 16,000 hard-working federal employees – even after years of accepting the subsidy themselves – is hypocritical and mean spirited.”
Those concerns run against a political current decrying what many view as a special deal for Congress. Georgia lawmakers were swamped by questions and accusations about the ruling while at home during August.
Former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel injected the issue into the U.S. Senate race, targeting a radio advertisement at the three GOP House members competing for the seat: Gingrey, Kingston and Rep. Paul Broun of Athens.
“Only in Washington can Congressmen campaign against Obamacare while receiving special treatment and thousands in taxpayer subsidies that the rest of us don’t get,” Handel says in the ad.
Gingrey, Kingston and Broun all said they oppose the subsidies. It’s unclear at this point whether they will get a chance to vote on it.
Where will Georgia’s members get their health insurance?
Expect to enroll in the Affordable Care Act’s Georgia exchange next year:
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga.; Rep. John Lewis, D-Atlanta; Rep. David Scott, D-Atlanta; Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Marietta; Rep. Rob Woodall, R-Lawrenceville; Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ranger; Rep. Paul Broun, R-Athens; Rep. John Barrow, D-Augusta; Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Albany; Rep. Austin Scott, R-Tifton
On federal employees’ plan now but unsure if they will enroll in exchanges:
Rep. Tom Price, R-Roswell; Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville
On federal employees’ plan now and plan to enroll in Medicare:
Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga.
Not on federal plan:
Rep. Hank Johnson, D-DeKalb County (kept plan from when he was a county commissioner and judge); Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Coweta County (kept state of Georgia plan from the state House); Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Savannah (kept state House plan).