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Johnson to Press OPM on Congressional Health Care Benefits

Homeland Security chairman wants documents on how Obama-era ruling came to be

Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson is chairman of the committee that oversees the federal workforce. (Bill Clark/Roll Call)
Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson is chairman of the committee that oversees the federal workforce. (Bill Clark/Roll Call)

Lawmakers and congressional staff might want to pay attention Wednesday morning when President Donald Trump’s nominees for the top two spots at the government’s personnel office face a Senate committee.

Most of the day’s attention will be on the Senate Judiciary hearing featuring Attorney General Jeff Sessions. But Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Ron Johnson is focused on the Office of Personnel Management, and the agency’s treatment of health insurance benefits for lawmakers and congressional aides.

“I think right now my primary emphasis with OPM is my concerted effort over a long period of time to get the documentation of how that ruling came to be,” the Wisconsin Republican said. “I think that’s the first step in really being able to address the — what I think was the unlawful order.”

Johnson was referring to the August 2013 decision by the OPM under President Barack Obama to pay employer contributions for members of Congress and staffers who were moved from the Federal Employee Health Benefits system to the District of Columbia exchange set up under the 2010 health care overhaul.

Johnson was one of several congressional Republicans (led by former Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana) who have called the payments and enrollment through the small business exchange in D.C. improper, if not illegal.

Vitter tried repeatedly to advance an amendment to stop the practice, which came to carry his own name. He got the support of 52 senators for such a proposal in a nonbinding form on a fiscal 2016 budget resolution during a vote-a-rama.

In 2014, Johnson went to federal court in Wisconsin seeking to upend the employer contributions, but a federal judge there tossed out his case.

Johnson said he has told OPM director nominee Jeff T.H. Pon and deputy director nominee Michael Rigas that he intends to obtain the records of the Obama administration’s decision as part of the confirmation process.

“I’ve already spoken to both the nominee for director and for the deputy director,” Johnson said of the two Trump picks. “They’re fully aware of it, and you can expect that question coming up in the hearing tomorrow as well.”

The Homeland Security chairman also said he wants to know if any of the documents related to the original decision were destroyed toward the end of the Obama administration.

“We sent a record preservation letter, and it’s our understanding that those records were preserved,” Johnson said.

While some outside conservative groups have pushed Trump to have the OPM reverse the decision, the current administration has taken no such action.

The president did, however, threaten the benefits back in July.

“If a new HealthCare Bill is not approved quickly,” Trump tweeted at the time. “BAILOUTS for Insurance Companies and BAILOUTS for Members of Congress will end very soon!”

The Trump administration announced last week it intended to end payments to insurance companies designed to support the cost of premiums for lower-income participants, though that change didn’t relate to the OPM policy.

Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Lamar Alexander said Tuesday that he had reached an agreement with Washington Sen. Patty Murray, the panel’s ranking Democrat, on a limited deal to continue those payments, a move to stabilize the individual health insurance markets.

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