Dozens of lawmakers and aides are so afraid that their health insurance premiums will skyrocket next year thanks to Obamacare that they are thinking about retiring early or just quitting.
The fear: Government-subsidized premiums will disappear at the end of the year under a provision in the health care law that nudges aides and lawmakers onto the government health care exchanges, which could make their benefits exorbitantly expensive.
Democratic and Republican leaders are taking the issue seriously, but first they need more specifics from the Office of Personnel Management on how the new rule should take effect – a decision that Capitol Hill sources expect by fall, at the latest. The administration has clammed up in advance of a ruling, sources on both sides of the aisle said.
If the issue isn’t resolved, and massive numbers of lawmakers and aides bolt, many on Capitol Hill fear it could lead to a brain drain just as Congress tackles a slew of weighty issues – like fights over the Tax Code and immigration reform.
The problem is far more acute in the House, where lawmakers and aides are generally younger and less wealthy. Sources said several aides have already given lawmakers notice that they’ll be leaving over concerns about Obamacare. Republican and Democratic lawmakers said the chatter about retiring now, to remain on the current health care plan, is constant.
Rep. John Larson, a Connecticut Democrat in leadership when the law passed, said he thinks the problem will be resolved.
“If not, I think we should begin an immediate amicus brief to say, ‘Listen this is simply not fair to these employees,’” Larson told POLITICO. “They are federal employees.”
Republicans, never a fan of Democratic health care reform, are more vocal about the potential adverse effects of the provision.
“It’s a reality,” said Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas). “This is the law… It’s going to hinder our ability with retention of members, it’s going to hinder our ability for members to take care of their families.” He said his fellow lawmakers are having “quiet conversations” about the threat.
Alabama Rep. Jo Bonner said the threat is already real, especially for veteran lawmakers and staff. If they leave this year, they think they can continue to be covered under the current health care plan.
“I’ve lost one staffer who told me in confidence that he had been here for a number of years and the thought of losing the opportunity to keep his health insurance on Dec. 31 [forced him to leave]. He could keep what he had and on Jan. 1 he would go into that big black hole,” said Bonner, who had already planned his resignation from Congress. “And then I’ve got another staff member that I think it will be a factor as she’s contemplating her future.”
Lawmakers and aides on both sides of the aisle are acutely aware of the problems with the provision. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) have discussed fixes to the provision. Boehner, according to House GOP sources, believes that Reid must take the lead on crafting a solution. Since Republicans opposed the bill, Boehner does not feel responsible to lead the effort to make changes.
The Affordable Care Act – signed into law in 2010 – contained a provision known as the Grassley Amendment, which said the government can only offer members of Congress and their staff plans that are “created” in the bill or “offered through an exchange” – unless the bill is amended.
Currently, aides and lawmakers receive their health care under the generous Federal Employee Health Benefits Program. The government subsidizes upward of 75 percent of the premiums for the health insurance plans. In 2014, most Capitol Hill aides and lawmakers are expected to be put onto the exchanges, and there has been no guidance whether the government will subsidize those premiums. This is expected to cause a steep spike in health insurance costs.
There have been many options for fixing the problem discussed throughout the year, including administrative fixes and legislative tweaks. One scenario seen as likely on Capitol Hill would have OPM simply decide that the government could still subsidize insurance on the exchanges.
House Democratic leadership says the issue must be resolved.
“The leadership has assured members that fixing this issue is a top priority,” said one Democratic leadership aide. “This issue must be fixed by administrative action in order that the flawed Grassley Amendment’s spirit is honored and all staff and members are treated the same.”
It could be politically difficult to change this provision. The provision was put in the bill in the first place on the theory that if Congress was going to make the country live under the provisions of Obamacare, the members and staff should have to as well.
The uncertainty has created a growing furor on Capitol Hill with aides young and old worried about skyrocketing health care premiums cutting deeply into their already small paychecks. Some longtime aides and members of Congress, who previously had government subsidized health care for life, are concerned that their premiums will now come out of their pension.
If their fears are borne out, the results could be twofold. Some junior staff will head for the private sector early while more seasoned aides and lawmakers could leave before the end of the year so they can continue under the old plan.
Several lawmakers said departures could run the gamut from low-level staff to legislative aides, to senior aides and lawmakers. Capitol Hill is an attractive workplace for politically ambitious college graduates, but a core of Capitol Hill aides stick around for decades, serving as institutional knowledge, and earning prized retirement packages.
OPM, which administers benefits for federal employees, is expected to rule in the coming months on how congressional health care is to be administered.
OPM did not respond to a request for comment.
More than a dozen senior aides interviewed by POLITICO about the issue declined to be named out of fear for future job prospects. The problem is most acutely felt at the staff level, where aides make between $35,000 and roughly $170,000 and budgetary problems have all but stopped pay increases and bonuses. Lawmakers have questioned leadership aides about the future of their health care.
“Between the constant uncertainty surrounding sequestration, and the likelihood aides will soon be paying for the subsidy portion of their health care coverage, congressional office budgets are being squeezed once again, and it’s causing a lot of concern amongst chiefs of staff regarding how to best handle the situation,” said one chief of staff to a senior Democratic member of the House. “Do we give raises to junior level aides so they can afford to pay for their higher health care costs, and if so, where do we find the funds to do so? Additionally, leadership has been relatively silent in terms of providing guidance to offices, which is frustrating.”
There are other ways that aides can fully avoid this problem. If they’re married, they can join their spouse’s health care plan. If they are 65, they can go on Medicare.
But the focus right now is centered on lawmakers trying to figure out how to offset potential increases in premiums.
“I know other members are doing the same thing in terms of what we can do to offset [premiums],” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said. “You are particularly limited now because of course we’ve had the cuts in the [member office allowances] on top of this. You just don’t have a lot of options.”
Cole added, “A lot of the staff stays on largely because of the benefit levels and particularly if you’ve got people with families and it’s extraordinarily important to them… it’s just not right.”