Congress is not exempt from Obamacare

9/30/2013 05:52:00 PM
There's a weird meme going around conservative circles that says that the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) somehow exempts congress from it's provisions. This is totally, unambiguously false. Listen: this isn't a matter of opinion; it's just the facts--congress is not and never was exempt from Obamacare.

Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein have already covered this issue, many times in fact. But the factually incorrect right-wing myth is still popping up in many conservative circles, including the newly proposed Vitter amendment, and in Koch-funded anti-Obamacare advertisements.

So here are the facts: Under Obamacare, around 70 to 80 percent of americans will be covered by employer-sponsored healthcoverage. With very few exceptions Obamacare won't change anything at all about these employer-sponsored plans (the main exception being that so-called "Cadillac plans" that have very little cost-sharing will be taxed as part of an effort to control health costs and offset costs). In states participating in the medicaid expansion, most of the remaining 20 to 30 percent who lack employer-sponsored coverage will be enrolled in medicaid. For the remaining few percent of the population who are fortunate enough to have jobs paying more than 133 percent of federal poverty level, but not fortunate enough to have an employer-sponsored plan, Obamacare creates new exchanges where they can get subsidized individual, family, and small-group health insurance plans that are "community rated," meaning that they pool risks across all plans offered on the exchange. This system is designed to offer the same benefits that big employer-based plans provide, to everyone not covered by big employers.

The United States Congress is a big employer, which has historically offered employer-sponsored health insurance benefits to members of congress and their staffers in exactly the same way as most big employers do. As Obamacare was originally envisioned, congress would continue to offer employer-based health coverage--just the same as all other employers in the country would do. However, as the debate over Obamacare heated up, some republicans such as Senator Grassely apparently thought democrats would hate the health insurance exchanges they were setting up for the individual markets, so Grassely attempted to embarrass the democrats by offering an amendment moving Congress's health insurance benefits onto the federal exchanges being created in the new law. Grassely was terribly misinformed, and democrats took the idea and ran with it--Obamacare abolishes Congress's employer-sponsored health insurance plans, replacing them with employer-subsidized plans on the Obamacare exchanges. Unlike any other employer in the country, the law actually mandates that Congress participate in the Obamacare exchanges.

That should have been the end of it. Republicans tried to portray Congress as exempt from the law--which they really weren't--but the Democrats called their bluff. But the meme continued to reverberate in the right-wing media.

The most recent incarnation of this terrible lie is the Vitter amendment, which claims that because congressmen and their staffers would continue to receive the same employer contributions they had before but now on the exchanges, somehow this meant congress is "exempt" from Obamacare. So Vitter wants to eliminate this alleged "exemption" by terminating the employer contributions to health care premiums for all members of congress and their staffers (as well as senior members of the executive branch).

This is nuts. The Vitter amendment does not repeal any special exemptions--Congress was never exempt from Obamacare--but it does cut salaries for Congress by tens of thousands per year, as their employer's contributions to their health insurance premiums will be terminated. I don't weep for the congressmen--who are all fabulously rich--but I do weep for their staffers. An average legislative correspondent (the guy who answers your letters to congress) working in the House of Representatives, for example, makes less than $27,000 a year for a full-time job. Assuming a family of 5, the Vitter amendment could easily cost one of these humble but overworked staffers nearly half their annual paycheck.

These lies are unacceptable and must stop.