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Life Health > Health Insurance > Health Insurance

GOP fights to end Congress group health benefits

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Some Republicans believe Congress should be one of the employers that eliminates group health benefits and has its employees to pay the full cost of exchange coverage.

One condition that Republicans proposed in a measure that could have averted a partial government shutdown would have eliminated government payments for the “employer share” of health premiums for members of Congress, congressional aides, presidential appointees, and the president and the vice president.

The proposal could have affected about 18,000 people.

The Democratic-controlled Senate rejected the measure Monday night, an hour after the House passed it.

The government now pays about three-fourths of federal workers’ health insurance premiums. House Republicans would end that contribution by amending the Senate’s temporary spending bill.

The Obama administration currrent position is that members of Congress and staffers in Washington will have to get their health coverage from the District of Columbia small-group exchange, but that the government will pay the same percentage of the premium for single workers as if the workers were getting their coverage from the federal employees’ plan. The government would also pay a comparable share of the cost for dependent coverage.

For many federal employees, implementing the Republican proposal would mean a pay cut of up to $11,000. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the GOP’s proposal would save the government about $1 billion over a decade.

“This is a matter of funding the government and providing fairness to the American people,” said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. “Why wouldn’t members of Congress vote for it?”

It wasn’t clear Boehner’s own GOP caucus was united on the amendment. “There’s not complete unanimity in there,” said one supporter of the plan, Rep. Scott Rigell, R-Va.

Even before the House took this new whack at the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), Senate Democrats rejected it as a condition for keeping the government in operating funds past midnight Monday. Majority Leader Harry Reid said a government shutdown could be avoided only if the GOP-controlled House passed a budget “clean” of any such amendments. Later in the day, President Barack Obama issued a veto threat, calling the amendment the product of a “narrow ideological agenda (that) threatens the nation’s economy.”

“They’re spinning their wheels,” Reid told reporters as the clock ticked toward midnight. “We are not going to change Obamacare.”

The amendment had supporters among Republican members of the Senate, where Sen. David Vitter, R-La., tried earlier this month to make it part of an energy bill. Rather than give him a vote on the question, Reid dropped consideration of the bill.

Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., said ending the government’s contribution to government officials who hold their jobs through politics is about making Washington a less privileged place.

“This is a very tough thing to vote against,” DeSantis said. “It may mean you’re facing a primary. This moves numbers. People do not like this in the country.”

The current government contribution toward health insurance premiums for members and their staffs is in line with payments from many private employers and is the same premium contribution that other federal employees get.

During the legislative fight over PPACA, Democrats repeatedly said their goal was to offer coverage to all Americans that was comparable to the coverage and choices that members of Congress receive.

“This is not a radical idea; 150 million Americans have exactly the same arrangement,” Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said Monday night. “They get their health insurance through their work and their employer pays a portion of the health insurance premium.”

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, then succeeded in adding a measure to Obama’s health care bill three years ago requiring members of Congress and employees in their offices to leave the Federal Employee Health Benefits program and start buying their insurance through the state exchanges that open Tuesday under the Obamacare law.

The new exchanges offering various tiers of coverage through private insurance companies were intended for the millions of Americans who don’t get medical insurance through their employers. The new health care law provides tax breaks for low- and middle-income insurance buyers, but most members of Congress and presidential appointees as well as thousands of employees in Congress have higher incomes that disqualify them for the tax subsidies. Companies with fewer than 50 workers also can shop for employee health care insurance on the new exchanges.

The potential impact of the provision has been a huge source of anxiety for congressional staffers accustomed to getting their health insurance just like other government employees through the federal benefits program.

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