Obama Fix doesn’t solve health care fines for Congress

Jonathan Strong Jonathan Strong, 27, is a reporter for the Daily Caller covering Congress. Previously, he was a reporter for Inside EPA where he wrote about environmental regulation in great detail, and before that a staffer for Rep. Dan Lungren (R-CA). Strong graduated from Wheaton College (IL) with a degree in political science in 2006. He is a huge fan of and season ticket holder to the Washington Capitals hockey team. Strong and his wife reside in Arlington.
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A memo from the Obama administration may stop members of Congress and their staffs from immediately getting dumped off their health care plans, but it won’t stop Congress from getting fined by its own health care law.

The reason is that while the new law is vague about whether Congress can keep its current health care plan for the moment, it’s crystal clear about dumping members and their staffs from that plan after 2014.

At that point, when 535 lawmakers and the 15,000 or so people who work for them flood newly-created health insurance exchange markets, it’s likely that some will apply for government subsidies, which in turn will trigger massive fines. Under the law, employers are subject to fines of up to $3,000 per person for each employee who receives government health care subsidies. As reported earlier by The Daily Caller, the bill could amount to as much as $50 million a year.

As of today, it’s not clear who might pay. The new law doesn’t say whether Congress – or the federal government as a whole – is on the hook for the fines. “Employer” is undefined in the law.

Kathleen Sebelius, President Obama’s top health-care cabinet official, will be responsible for establishing most of the details of how the law is implemented. Some Republicans believe she will likely exempt Congress from the fines by, for example, narrowly defining the word “employer.”

Some say that process is already underway. On April 16, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), which governs federal employees and the health insurance plan for Congress and its staff, sent letters to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid saying that, as far as OPM is  concerned, Congress can keep its current health care plans.

Although the Congressional Research Service, which practically caries the voice of God on Capitol Hill, argued Congress should likely have been dumped off their health care plans when President Obama signed the law, OPM said the health care law has “no current effect upon the eligibility of Members of Congress or their staffs” to keep their current coverage.

Is OPM just ignoring the law? The issue is unlikely to be challenged in court, GOP aides say, so we may never know.

In the meantime, we do know that in 2014, Congress will have to participate in the health insurance exchange markets that are established by the law, and some of Congress’ employees will qualify for government subsidies, and are likely to successfully apply for them, which will trigger employer mandate fines for Congress.

In that case, maybe OPM or Sebelius’ Health and Human Services or one of the other agencies will step in to say, in effect, “nothing to see here folks!”

Or maybe Congress will shell out $50 million a year to itself under a law it passed without many lawmakers reading it or becoming familiar with its details.

Either way, it’s kind of funny.