Reid decision on staff health insurance triggers new Obamacare criticism

WASHINGTON — A decision by Sen. Harry Reid to exempt some of his top aides from having to buy health insurance through the Affordable Care Act has triggered another flurry over what critics call Obamacare.

Conservatives erupted after it was reported Wednesday that the Senate majority leader from Nevada was the only congressional leader who was exercising an option to exempt certain staff from parts of the health care law.

Reid’s move “is the clearest example yet of Obamacare’s failures and Washington hypocrisy,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. “His staff worked to pass it and continue to promote it; now they don’t want to be part of it because it’s a disaster.”

A Reid spokeswoman said he has proposed to change that portion of the law, but Republicans have shown little interest. In the meantime, his actions are consistent with the law, according to his staff.

The Affordable Care Act required lawmakers and aides on their “official” staffs to drop coverage through the Federal Employee Health Benefit program and buy insurance through the health care marketplaces created by the new law.

The government pays part of the premiums for the congressional staffers no matter which plan they join, the Federal Employee Health Benefit program or any of the District of Columbia health insurance exchange options.

“Official” has been interpreted to mean a congressman’s or senator’s personal staff. But the law allowed lawmakers discretion when it came to staffers assigned to House and Senate committees and those who work on leadership staffs.

CNN reported that Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California directed their entire staffs to join an exchange.

That left Reid, who engineered passage of the health law in 2010 and has been a vocal defender since then.

Senate records as of March 31, the most recent available, counted 28 people on Reid’s personal staff. Reid’s leadership office employed 35 people, while another 10 senior advisers are paid from a consultants account that he shares with McConnell.

Reid has not detailed his thinking, and his aides say he is following the law.

“A provision in the law, drafted by Republican Senator Tom Coburn, differentiates between committee and personal staff, and Sen. Reid has followed the law by placing the appropriate staff on the exchange,” spokeswoman Kristen Orthman said in an email.

“Sen. Reid has proposed changing the law so all staff and members go on the exchange but, unfortunately, Republicans have shown no interest in trying to fix the law but rather just want to kill it,” Orthman said.

Other lawmakers also are exempting staff, some entirely.

Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., has said he was keeping his aides on their current Federal Employees Health Benefits coverage. Likewise for Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Texas, and Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, has placed his personal staff in the exchanges but exempted his aides on the Senate Finance Committee.

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, also is keeping his committee staff on the federal plan. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., the ranking Republican on the committee, is doing the same.

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault@stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760. Follow him on Twitter @STetreaultDC.