The Fight Over Congressional Health Care Stalls Another Obama Nominee

As part of his ongoing crusade against the way members and staff get their insurance coverage, David Vitter has put a hold on Obama’s pick to head OPM.

FILE - In this Nov. 12, 2014 file photo, the HealthCare.gov website, where people can buy health insurance, is displayed on a laptop screen, in Portland, Ore. The Obama administration says nearly 950,000 consumers have signed up for new coverage under the president’s health care law, even after 2015 enrollment officially ended. And the share of Americans uninsured is down for the second year in a row _ just above 9 percent.
AP Photo/Don Ryan
Feb. 25, 2016, 9 a.m.

Lame-duck Sen. Dav­id Vit­ter isn’t back­ing down from his fight against Con­gres­sion­al health care, and OPM Act­ing Dir­ect­or Beth Cobert is the latest to feel the brunt of the Louisi­ana Re­pub­lic­an’s out­rage over what he calls the “Wash­ing­ton’s Obama­care Ex­emp­tion.”

Vit­ter has placed a hold on the nom­in­a­tion of Cobert to per­man­ently lead the agency, writ­ing in a let­ter re­leased Thursday that she failed to re­spond to his ques­tions. It’s not the first time Vit­ter has placed a hold on an OPM nom­in­ee be­cause of Con­gres­sion­al health care, a cru­sade the Small Busi­ness and En­tre­pren­eur­ship Com­mit­tee chair­man has been lead­ing for years.

The an­swer to what ex­actly Vit­ter is op­pos­ing can’t be ex­plained in one breath, but it can be found in just a few lines in the Af­ford­able Care Act. The law states “the only health plans that the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment may make avail­able to Mem­bers of Con­gress and con­gres­sion­al staff … shall be the health plans that are cre­ated un­der this Act … or offered through an ex­change es­tab­lished un­der this Act.”

But the law didn’t spe­cify which ex­change. So, OPM ended up rul­ing on the mat­ter, de­cid­ing that mem­bers and staff who wanted health in­sur­ance through their em­ploy­er were re­quired to opt in­to D.C.’s small busi­ness ex­change.

To Vit­ter, that’s the “Wash­ing­ton Obama­care Ex­emp­tion.” The small busi­ness ex­change al­lows em­ploy­ers to con­trib­ute to an em­ploy­ee’s health plan, and Vit­ter ar­gues Con­gress is a large em­ploy­er, and thus, mem­bers and staff should be re­quired to shop in the in­di­vidu­al mar­ket­place, which would make them in­eligible for em­ploy­er con­tri­bu­tions.

“As much as fed­er­al bur­eau­crats en­joy hid­ing be­hind lay­ers of red tape, we have now reached the point where OPM can no longer avoid ex­plain­ing how Con­gress was al­lowed to pur­chase health in­sur­ance as a small busi­ness – when it clearly is not,” Vit­ter said in a state­ment. “Ms. Cobert’s nom­in­a­tion will not move for­ward in any ca­pa­city un­til the Amer­ic­an people have re­ceived an­swers as to why Wash­ing­ton’s Obama­care Ex­emp­tion ex­ists.”

In Vit­ter’s let­ter, he men­tions that it re­cently came to his at­ten­tion that the U.S. Sen­ate Dis­burs­ing Of­fice and the House’s Chief Ad­min­is­trat­ive Of­fice con­sider Con­gress a large em­ploy­er for re­port­ing health cov­er­age. “I have writ­ten the Com­mis­sion­er of the In­tern­al Rev­en­ue Ser­vice re­quest­ing con­firm­a­tion that the Con­gress is a large em­ploy­er and wheth­er or not there have been any vi­ol­a­tions of the In­tern­al Rev­en­ue Code giv­en com­mu­nic­a­tions and reg­u­lat­ory lan­guage by two fed­er­al gov­ern­ment agen­cies that seem to be con­tra­dict­ory,” the let­ter said.

Vit­ter’s battle hasn’t been solely aimed at nom­in­ees. The Af­ford­able Care Act defined con­gres­sion­al staff as “all full-time and part-time em­ploy­ees em­ployed by the of­fi­cial of­fice of a Mem­ber of Con­gress”—a mat­ter Vit­ter took up with the Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­an con­fer­ence in Decem­ber 2014. He wanted to en­sure  all staff were on the ex­changes in­stead of the fed­er­al pro­gram, in­clud­ing com­mit­tee and lead­er­ship staff. However, the rule was non­bind­ing, and a Na­tion­al Journ­al sur­vey last Feb­ru­ary and March found that most—but not all—were par­ti­cip­at­ing.

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