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New Push for Staff Benefits

Ney Also Works to Bring MSA’s to House Aides

Close to a year after House lawmakers struck down a proposal to expand dental and vision benefits for their staffs, two lawmakers have renewed efforts to expand employees’ health care benefits.

Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) is seeking to revive a program House lawmakers immobilized during the fiscal 2004 appropriations process, while Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) is developing a medical savings account for Members and staff.

Several Appropriations Committee members objected to a program matching Moran’s proposal during a July 2003 debate, asserting that the health program had not been included in the Chief Administrative Officer’s fiscal 2004 budget. Members of the House Administration Committee, which oversees the CAO’s office, denied that accusation but lawmakers nonetheless voted to prohibit the use of funds for the program.

After reviewing the program in recent months, however, Moran now says he will push to include it in the fiscal 2005 legislative branch spending bill.

“I think it’s something that has merit,” Moran said. “I think we pay most of our staff on the Hill pretty poorly, but if we can offer a decent benefit … then it’s an added incentive for people to come to work for us.”

Although the benefit program does not appear in fiscal 2005 budget justifications provided by the Office of the Chief Administrative Officer, which would administer the program, Moran pushed for the program in a May 12 letter to Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch. Moran is the panel’s ranking member.

Despite efforts by both House and Senate lawmakers to curb spending in the fiscal 2005 legislative branch appropriations bill — appropriators have questioned the combined $4.4 billion budget requested by Congressional agencies, a 12 percent increase over the current fiscal year — Moran asserted the program is still feasible.

“I think we have to weigh it against other funding priorities, but I wanted to include it into the consideration,” he said. Roll Call has previously reported that the benefits package would cost taxpayers an estimated $750,000; however, some of that cost would be picked up by Members and staff enrolled in the program.

Whether the program will be supported by the full Appropriations panel is not yet clear.

When House lawmakers elected to implement language prohibiting the program in fiscal 2004, Appropriations ranking member David Obey (D-Wis.) questioned whether Members and staff should receive expanded benefits, stating at that time: “There may be good reasons to add such a benefit for public employees but … it should not happen at the same time we are chiseling on health benefits for other Americans.”

Appropriations minority spokesman Dave Helfert said recently that the benefits program has not been discussed, noting that the legislative branch legislation has not yet reached the markup process.

“It’ll be looked into and talked about” at the appropriate time, Helfert said.

A spokeswoman for Kingston said the lawmaker has taken Moran’s proposal under consideration.

“Right now, he’s looking at it pretty favorably,” said Jennifer Hing, Kingston’s spokeswoman. “He knows that Mr. Moran has always pushed for employee benefits and better work environments for employees.”

In the meantime, House Administration Chairman Ney is pushing a new plan that would create medical savings accounts for Members and staff.

“The chairman still advocates the vision and dental benefits he was pushing for last year,” noted Brian Walsh, spokesman for the House Administration panel. But he added: “We are moving ahead with flexible savings accounts.”

That savings program, which is modeled on an Office of Personnel Management initiative, would allow House staff to put aside pretax dollars into special accounts that are used to pay for both medical and nonmedical services.

House officials would offer two types of accounts to employees, including those not enrolled in the chamber’s health insurance program, Walsh said. Employees may opt to enroll in one, both or neither of the savings programs.

One of the accounts would be dedicated to “out of pocket” expenses, likely those related to vision and dental care, and some over-the-counter medications. House staff will be allowed to designate up to $4,000 per year for that account.

The second savings account program would be designated for costs related to “dependent care” expenses, such as child care programs. Employees would be permitted to deposit up to $5,000 per year in those accounts.

Because the accounts would be paid for by House staff, Walsh noted, there is no significant cost associated with the new program.

Before the savings account program can be implemented, however, House officials must install a new payroll system that is able to process the various accounts. That system is expected to be in place early next year.

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