WASHINGTON — Sen. Dean Heller, who promoted a bill this fall to halt a government-funded financial benefit for lawmakers and their staffs under the Affordable Care Act, ended up buying coverage this month through a health exchange that offered the assistance.
While some other Republican foes of Obamacare took steps to distance themselves from the annual benefit that could reach beyond $11,000, Heller’s office said he was “following the law” by signing up for insurance through the District of Columbia marketplace that enabled enrollees to keep it.
“My position has been from the very beginning that I’ll do whatever the law says,” the Nevada Republican said in an interview. “That doesn’t mean I can’t make it better or try to change it.”
“I know people who voted against the Bush tax cuts and still took them,” Heller said. “So you ought to ask those people why did they take the Bush tax cuts when they voted against them.” Heller was referring presumably to Democrats who voted against laws Congress enacted in 2001 and 2003 that lowered income tax rates, the rates on capital gains and estate taxes while increasing certain tax credits and relaxing the “marriage penalty” tax.
Heller’s decision on his health insurance shows how health reform became a personal matter this fall for members of Congress and more than 11,000 congressional staffers who came under the Affordable Care Act umbrella for 2014. Amendments added before the act passed in 2010 require them to enroll in policies created by the law or buy insurance through one of its authorized federal or state health exchanges.
The federal Office of Personnel Management, which wrote rules for the law as it pertains to Congress, advised in August that lawmakers and their personal staffs should enroll through the District of Columbia marketplace, DC Health Link, in order to preserve government contributions to their premiums that had been enjoyed through their previous carrier, the Federal Employees Health Benefits program.
Members of Congress and congressional staff are eligible to have the government pay up to 75 percent for their premiums, according to the OPM. The maximum government contribution for 2014 is $5,113 for a policy covering an individual and $11,378 for family coverage.
While many lawmakers have joined DC Health Link, others have chosen to waive the premium payment by buying eligible private insurance or buying insurance through a state exchange.
In September, Heller joined Sens. David Vitter, R-La., and Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., to sponsor a bill that would have stripped the federal premium payment. They argued it amounted to a “subsidy” for well-paid members of Congress and Capitol Hill aides that was not available to millions of Americans also being forced into Obamacare.
“Our bill gets right to the core of the OPM ‘fix’ and says we won’t allow a Washington exemption from Obamacare,” Vitter said in a Sept. 10 statement.
The bill, which Senate Democrats blocked from a vote, also would have required the president, vice president and executive branch political appointees to buy health insurance through the Affordable Care Act, “without the help of taxpayer-funded subsidies.”
“It’s simple,” Heller said on Sept. 10. “Members of Congress, their staff, and the administration must play by the same rules as the American taxpayer.
“Those who are responsible for crafting and passing Obamacare, including committee and leadership congressional staff, should be subject to the law as well,” Heller said.
Defenders of the premium payments, including Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., said they are no different than what a company pays toward health care for its employees. Reid joined the DC exchange and confirmed he is receiving the federal contribution.
“I’m just like 150 million other people in America,” Reid told a questioner last week. “My employer helps me pay for my health care.”
Besides Reid, Nevada Democratic Reps. Dina Titus and Steven Horsford joined the District of Columbia exchange, according to their offices.
Republican Rep. Joe Heck said he was buying eligible insurance on the private market.
“I’m not going to take the employer match,” he said in a recent interview. “That’s not right. I didn’t come here for health care benefits.”
Republican Rep. Mark Amodei also bought a private health policy for himself, through a Reno insurance broker. Amodei told the Reno Gazette-Journal he did not trust the security of the Washington, D.C. health care exchange website, although he said he would probably enroll in the DC exchange next year.
The deadline for signups was Dec. 9. An informal Washington Post poll early in December showed at least 55 senators were joining the District of Columbia exchange, including Heller.
At least 11 other senators were waiving the employer contributions and joining a state-run exchange, according to the Post.
Vitter said in a statement that he enrolled in a health insurance plan on the Louisiana exchange and receives “no subsidy of any kind for it.”
Enzi told the Washington Post he planned to join DC Health Link but waive the employer contribution. It was not clear how that would work. An OPM spokesman said last week that members of Congress not wanting the payment are advised to buy a plan outside the DC exchange.
Three of the four House Republicans in the Colorado delegation, as well as the state’s two Democratic senators, were planning to buy insurance through their home state exchange, the Denver Post reported earlier this month.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he bought his insurance through the South Carolina exchange specifically to forgo the federal contribution.
“I don’t think members of Congress should get a special deal,” Graham said. “Obamacare is being pushed on the American people and we should live under it just like everyone else.”
Heller said he will continue to oppose the health care law and remained hopeful Congress will enact changes even if it impacts his coverage.
“If we can change it, if we can make it better, if we can repeal and replace it, all that would be beneficial,” he said. “I’ll follow the law and I’ll continue to follow the law. But that doesn’t mean I can’t try to make it better.”
Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-783-1760. Follow @STetreaultDC on Twitter.