Congress' non-exemption from Obamacare

  • Article by: KEVIN DIAZ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 7, 2013 - 6:00 PM
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Al Franken and wife Franni will get their health insurance through MNsure, the Minnesota health insurance exchange.

Photo: Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

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Surveys show that colonoscopies are more popular than Congress.

For evidence of this, look no further than the tortured debate about whether members of Congress exempted themselves from the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare.

This is one where the rhetoric is so convoluted it’s best to look at what they do, not what they say.

Here’s what Minnesota Democrat Al Franken did: The senator and his wife will get their health insurance through MNsure, the Minnesota health insurance exchange.

This isn’t just significant because it will cost him a boatload of money. If Franken did what most other Minnesotans in Congress are doing and got on the D.C. exchange, he’d probably come out about 12 grand ahead.

But there’s politics. Franken, who faces re-election in 2014, has been hammered by Minnesota Republicans for helping grant a “special exception” to Congress.

What is the exception? As originally envisioned, members of Congress — government employees all — would have stayed in the Federal Employees Benefit Health Plan, kept their current benefits, and gotten the same employer premium contribution as anyone else who works for a large employer.

Republicans, however, decided that if Congress was going to create insurance exchanges, Congress should “feel the sting” too. Since the Obamacare exchanges were designed for people who aren’t covered through their jobs, that meant goodbye employer contribution.

Although Democrats reluctantly went along with it, the lost employer contribution was not popular on either side of the partisan curtain, particularly among Congress’ lowest-paid staffers, who would get swept up in the same politically inspired dragnet.

But President Obama gave the denizens of Capitol Hill a measure of hope and a reprieve from change. The HR people at the Office of Personnel Management decided that members of Congress and their staffs could avail themselves of the employer contribution — if they signed up on the D.C. health exchange, where Congress is located.

This became a big GOP talking point. On the eve of the government shutdown, the Republican-led House passed a measure that would have delayed the implementation of Obamacare and eliminated the exemption for members of Congress.

That didn’t happen, and the D.C. exchange became the exchange of choice for Congress.

Indeed, this is the exchange that all Minnesota Democrats in Congress have chosen except Franken and Collin Peterson, who, at age 69, is eligible for Medicare.

Among the Republicans, Rep. John Kline, a retired Marine, is going under the Tricare plan for vets. Rep. Erik Paulsen, who also voted to eliminate the so-called exemption, did not respond to inquiries.

Republican Michele Bachmann, an Obamacare foe who has publicly complained that she “lost” her insurance under the law, told CNN recently that she has been “forced” into the D.C. health exchange.

But as Franken’s gesture reveals, nobody was forced onto the D.C. exchange. It’s an economy move resulting from Democrats’ willingness to swallow a GOP poison pill to avoid the perception of receiving a government subsidy.

Bachmann, for her part, acknowledged the dilemma in a Fox News interview where she said the idea of a special deal for lawmakers had it backward. “The only ones that are being punished in the federal government,” she said, “are members of Congress.”

But lawmakers aren’t the only ones stuck in a bind. According to Peterson, moving lawmakers and their staffs from the federal government plan to the D.C. exchange will actually cost the taxpayers more money, not less.

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