Hill Staff Feels Strain as Health Insurance Becomes Weapon

Posted September 30, 2013 at 4:52pm

Confused and frustrated by the fact that her health insurance is now a political weapon, Rochelle Dornatt is on the verge of ending her 32-year career on Capitol Hill.

The partisan political debate over her health insurance is threatening to send the chief of staff for 11-term Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., and many other senior-level congressional staffers out the door.

“There’s a lot of chatter among chiefs of staff,” Dornatt said Monday, including at least eight from California’s 53-member House delegation, “who are ready to leave if this doesn’t turn out right.”

The health care law colloquially known as Obamacare states that starting in 2014, members of Congress and their staffs can no longer get their health insurance through the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, as they have in the past. Unlike other federal workers, who can continue coverage under FEHBP plans, congressional staffers will be forced to get coverage through the exchanges established under the law.

“Remember we said when we got in the health care debate: If you have health insurance and you like it, you don’t have to change — well, there was one asterisk next to that: the Grassley amendment,” Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., said in reference to an amendment by Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, that compelled members and their staff to enter the exchanges, even though the exchanges were envisioned primarily for people who did not have insurance through an employer already.

“Members of Congress and their staff have to change by law, and so we’re going to be in the health insurance exchanges,” Durbin said. “Fine with me. Talked it over with my wife, we’ll be covered, no question about it, but it is a complication. It is different than virtually any other group of people or individual going into the state insurance exchanges.”

Those exchanges open Tuesday, but House and Senate officials have encouraged staffers to defer signing up — leaving less than three months until the Jan. 1 deadline for coverage and a plethora of questions.

The Office of Personnel Management only issued guidelines for members and staffers signing up for the exchanges on Monday. The OPM’s rule states that for members and their staffs to receive the government’s employer contribution, they must register in the D.C. Small Business Health Options Program exchange beginning in November.

The health insurance drama, combined with potential government shutdown furloughs, “really tears at the fabric of employer-employee relations on Capitol Hill,” said Brad Fitch, president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation.

As a nonpartisan, non-policy organization, the CMF takes no position on the provisions of the law, but the group is concerned with the management implications, and it has been reaching out to staff since August to research how changes to health care benefits could affect retention, recruitment and office morale.

“The tone that I capture from staff that I talk to is their feelings are hurt, because they feel they’re working hard and they’re already making a sacrifice by working in the public sector instead of the private sector, where they could make more money,” Fitch said. “They’re already in very difficult jobs where sometimes on the front lines they’re getting yelled at by constituents, they’re working longer hours than most people and now their health insurance benefits are being called things like a ‘special subsidy.’”

G. William Hoagland, senior vice president of the Bipartisan Policy Center and a budget expert, told CQ Roll Call that those using the congressional staff as a political football don’t comprehend the consequences for senior aides.

“I think it was never assumed at all in the law that employer-provided health insurance was going away,” Hoagland said, noting that under normal circumstances, drafting errors could be resolved by passing a technical corrections bill. That just isn’t the case here, given the political climate surrounding Obamacare.

Hoagland said his biggest concern at the moment is whether longtime congressional staffers would have to stay in the exchanges upon retirement — and lose earned federal contributions to their health insurance as a result. Hoagland said he had personally heard from senior staffers contemplating taking their retirement benefits sooner rather than later. The final OPM rule states that staffers who retire may participate in the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program if they are eligible through their previous contributions to the program.

“This can make a very big difference on whether they remain in government service,” Hoagland said. “I think it would be further damage to the institution.”

Dornatt pulled together the paperwork for her potential retirement in late spring and said her decision likely rests on the final guidance from the OPM. She said a total of five senior-level employees, a “good chunk” of Farr’s 17-person staff, are facing the same choice. “How do they plan their lives and how do they make sure that they provide for their families in terms of health care, if they don’t know what the future brings?” Dornatt asked. “I don’t have any answers right now.”

Hoagland said the situation could create a “real incentive” for senior aides to leave government service before the year’s end, saying the government risks “kind of pulling the rug out from under” people who have been in public service for decades.

Hoagland himself spent 33 years as a federal employee in both the military and civilian sectors, including 25 years as a Senate staffer.

Another House chief of staff, who spoke to CQ Roll Call on the condition of anonymity, said she once floated top-notch health insurance coverage to new recruits as an offset to the low entry-level salary in public service. She worries about what will happen if the employer contribution disappears.

“I basically feel like everything is being stripped away as a manager to be able to retain the staff that we cherish and work so hard and recruit new staff,” she said, estimating that one-third to one-half of her office falls into the category of junior-level staff. “Considering the levels of salary that we have to work with, I just think it’s really unfortunate from a workplace standpoint that they now have to worry about their health insurance.”

Richard Sorian, spokesman for D.C.’s health insurance exchange, said the District will be ready to meet the health insurance needs of members of Congress and their staff.

“We have had conversations with OPM and with the offices on the Hill that handle benefits,” Sorian said.