Vitter Blocks OPM Pick Over Hill Staff ‘Obamacare Exemption’

Senator wants an explanation for why congressional aides can get employer subsidies to buy health insurance.

A woman looks at the insurance exchange internet site October 1, 2013 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Rachel Roubein
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Rachel Roubein
Feb. 11, 2015, 12:13 p.m.

Pres­id­ent Obama’s uni­lat­er­al ac­tion on im­mig­ra­tion isn’t to blame for the latest GOP move to block one of his nom­in­ees. This time, it’s health care.

On Wed­nes­day, Sen. Dav­id Vit­ter an­nounced he would hold the nom­in­a­tion of re­tired U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Earl Gay to serve as the deputy dir­ect­or of the Of­fice of Per­son­nel Man­age­ment. Gay cur­rently serves as seni­or ad­viser to the dir­ect­or of OPM, the typ­ic­ally non­con­tro­ver­sial agency that man­ages fed­er­al job-an­nounce­ment post­ings, con­ducts back­ground checks on pro­spect­ive em­ploy­ees, man­ages pen­sion be­ne­fits, and more.

And why? Be­cause of what the Louisi­ana Re­pub­lic­an calls the “Wash­ing­ton Ex­emp­tion from Obama­care,” which Vit­ter has of­ten railed against.

Es­sen­tially, the Af­ford­able Care Act re­quires law­makers and some con­gres­sion­al staff to re­ceive their health in­sur­ance on the Wash­ing­ton, D.C., health ex­change, called D.C. Health Link. But some staff can be con­sidered “un­of­fi­cial.” And, voilà, that loop­hole has al­lowed staff to get their health in­sur­ance the old way, through the Fed­er­al Em­ploy­ees Health Be­ne­fits pro­gram, where they are al­loc­ated a sti­pend to pay for health in­sur­ance.

But, here’s the catch that Vit­ter calls the “Wash­ing­ton Ex­emp­tion”: OPM de­cided that staffers, those des­ig­nated as “of­fi­cial staff,” would sign up through the D.C. small-busi­ness health mar­ket­place. This means their em­ploy­ers are al­lowed to make con­tri­bu­tions to their health plan (though there’s a lim­it to how much can be giv­en).

“OPM cre­ated the Wash­ing­ton Ex­emp­tion from Obama­care, and they still haven’t answered ques­tions about how and why,” Vit­ter said in a state­ment. “Once they an­swer some spe­cif­ic ques­tions about why they think Con­gress is en­titled to a spe­cial ex­emp­tion from Obama­care, I’ll re­lease the hold.”

Vit­ter has con­tin­ued to push for a change. In Decem­ber, he pro­posed a non­bind­ing party rule to Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans, ur­ging them to put their per­son­al, com­mit­tee, and lead­er­ship staff on D.C.’s health ex­change. It passed un­an­im­ously by voice vote. Last week, he launched an in­vest­ig­a­tion in­to why Con­gress is clas­si­fied as a small busi­ness for health in­sur­ance pur­poses. Pro­ponents of this clas­si­fic­a­tion ar­gue that each of­fice and com­mit­tee has its own fi­nite budget and staff.

But oth­er Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans have already signed off on Gay’s nom­in­a­tion, as it passed the Sen­ate Home­land Se­cur­ity and Gov­ern­ment­al Af­fairs Com­mit­tee last month.

Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell is now tasked with scut­tling ob­jec­tions to Obama’s nom­in­ees from his party — and it’s his prob­lem to solve, said Adam Jentleson, Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id’s spokes­man.

“Noth­ing’s changed,” Jentleson said. “It’s just more of the same Re­pub­lic­an ob­struc­tion.”

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