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Senior Staffers Hampered by Health Care

The recent changes to health care benefits are taking their toll on senior-level staff morale on Capitol Hill, according to a new survey.

Nearly 4 in 10 chiefs of staff and district directors recently surveyed by the Congressional Management Foundation said they would likely be looking for a job outside the office within the next 12 months.

“The elimination of staff’s traditional health care has been a complete disaster,” said one senior staffer, responding to the survey. “If you wanted a legislative branch run by K Street lobbyists and 25-year-old staffers, Mission Accomplished.”

CMF President and CEO Bradford Fitch said the nonpartisan nonprofit began receiving calls in April from Capitol Hill chiefs of staff who were concerned by the potential impact of the health care law, colloquially known as Obamacare, that mandated members of Congress and many members of their staff could no longer get health insurance through the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program beginning in 2014.

At the time, the Office of Personnel Management had not yet issued full guidelines for members and staffers who were required to gain coverage through the new health care exchanges in order to continue receiving the government’s employer contribution.

Calls began to “build and build and build,” Fitch said, and eventually the CMF was hearing about the issue “on a daily basis.” One 30-year veteran of the Hill feeling stressed by the health care changes even called and applied for a job at the CMF, Fitch said.

The CMF surveyed senior-level staff from Nov. 18 through Dec. 6, during the open enrollment period for staffers to register for coverage under the D.C. Small Business Health Options Program. Conclusions are based on 163 responses to 10 questions focused on staff benefits and office budgets.

Retaining staff and recruiting new talent were among the foremost concerns for chiefs of staff and district directors, with 79 percent predicting that changes to health care benefits could contribute to staffers leaving the office. Of those surveyed, 38 percent said it was likely that they would be looking for work outside the office in the next 12 months, and another 11 percent said they were unsure about the prospect of job-searching elsewhere.

“I found out in September that I have breast cancer,” one senior-level staffer responded. “I’m losing my health care coverage in the middle of my radiation treatment. Getting insured through the D.C. exchange is not helpful — my choices are very limited and costs are high. As a result, I’ve gone on my husband’s plan. My staff don’t necessarily have that option.”

Respondents were also asked about their staffs’ perception of the health benefits transition. Administrative officials in both chambers were briefing staffers on the changes and hosting regular support sessions, around the time of the survey.

Ninety percent agreed that the people working for them were worried about benefit changes, according to the survey, and 86 percent agreed their staff was worried about costs. Additionally, 79 percent said access was a concern. Still, more than a third — 35 percent — of the chiefs of staff and district directors surveyed agreed their staff had a good understanding of the changes.

In open-ended anonymous responses, many said their health care costs and deductibles were increasing dramatically for 2014. One predicted the negative impact on family budgets would force older, more experienced staff to leave the office, adding, “I don’t expect to see this in the first six months of the year, but perhaps late in 2014 and in 2015.”

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