Lawmakers and staffs will be forced to buy insurance from state exchanges or make other arrangements as health reform law kicks in.
After final votes were cast, members of Congress walk down the steps of the House of Representatives on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, Aug. 2, 2013, as they leave for a five-week recess. With few accomplishments in the divided 113th Congress, the next big battle is over the budget, the nation's debt limit and the possibility of at least a partial government shutdown. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
WASHINGTON – Congress faces a fast-approaching deadline for dealing firsthand with the requirements of President Obama’s health care reform law.
A wrinkle in the Affordable Care Act is taking away employee health care benefits from members, forcing the lawmakers and their aides to buy policies from state exchanges or make other arrangements starting Oct. 1.
After years of partisan debate on the law, their responses in advance of the pending enrollment period appear split along party lines.
Most of Minnesota’s Democratic congressional members plan to sign up for the state’s health care exchange.
Republican U.S. Reps. Michele Bachmann, John Kline and Erik Paulsen have not revealed their plans for coverage when their federal benefits expire at year’s end. Since the law’s passage in 2010, the three have fought hard against the law known as Obamacare, voting to defund or repeal it 40 times.
The issue helped elevate Bachmann’s national profile during the summer of 2009, when congressional town halls and Tea Party rallies became ground zero in the battle over health care reform.
Republicans, almost unified in their opposition to the law, still hope to rally last-minute opposition to kill the law. Through their spokesmen, Bachmann, Kline and Paulsen all slammed it.
“Because of the fatally flawed Obamacare law, it is impossible to speculate on anyone’s health care,” said Kline spokesman Troy Young.
For uninsured Americans or those with limited coverage, the health plans created under the law will offer benefits closer to what members of Congress and other public or corporate employees currently enjoy.
Coverage under the state exchanges includes prescription drugs, maternity and newborn care, and treatments for mental health and drug and alcohol abuse, among other benefits.
Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, along with Reps. Keith Ellison, Betty McCollum and Tim Walz — all defenders of the law — say they plan to purchase insurance through MNsure, Minnesota’s health insurance exchange.
Proposed rules say the government will continue to pay its current share of premiums for members and staff, which amounts to roughly 75 percent.
Staff for Democratic Reps. Collin Peterson, who voted against the law in 2010, and Rick Nolan did not respond to requests for comment.
In July, Peterson joined House Republicans in voting for a yearlong delay on the Affordable Care Act’s provision requiring individuals to purchase health insurance or pay a fine. The legislation stalled after the Democrat-led Senate refused to consider it.
Parts of the Affordable Care Act are already in effect — including a popular provision that allows adults under 26 to remain on their parents’ insurance — but public opinion on the law remains mixed. A Star Tribune Minnesota Poll from September showed that 47 percent of likely voters opposed the law, while 46 percent supported keeping it.
Fight to the end
Republicans want to turn reports of higher insurance rates and of employers cutting jobs and hours, along with the Obama administration’s own struggles to implement the law, into a public backlash that accomplishes what they have been unable to do thus far: bury the bill.
This summer, the Obama administration delayed enforcement of the requirement that all employers with more than 50 employees provide coverage to their workers until 2015. But barring a last-minute reprieve, the individual requirement for insurance will go into effect in 2014, as planned.
Because of an amendment written by Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Congress is the only large employer that has to enter the exchanges this year — or that is even allowed to do so.
The amendment was introduced as another attempt to derail the law, by requiring lawmakers to get the same coverage offered to uninsured Americans. But it survived when Senate Democrats later passed the legislation with backing from a single Republican.
Undeterred by the impending enrollment deadline, Heritage Action for America and other conservative groups have been hosting anti-Obamacare town halls during this month’s congressional recess.
In Minnesota, the St. Paul-based Citizens’ Council for Health Freedom has encouraged state residents to avoid the MNsure exchange.
Groups with ties to the Obama administration, including Organizing for Action and Enroll America, have countered the conservative efforts, staging events to inform people about opportunities for health care coverage.
“The bottom line is, the exchanges were to meet a specific problem, and that is the 50 million uninsured,” Ellison said on Minnesota Public Radio this month. “This piece of the law that was designed to address a specific problem is now being used as a political got-you. I just think it’s very unfortunate.”
Corey Mitchell is a correspondent in the Star Tribune’s Washington Bureau. Twitter: @C_C_Mitchell