News: CJ Exclusives

Butterfield Staff Eschews Switch to Obamacare

Staffs of other N.C. delegation members choose exchanges

RALEIGH — Most of North Carolina’s congressional staffers — the men and women who work for the state’s two U.S. senators and 13 members of the U.S. House of Representatives — will be entering the District of Columbia’s health care exchange once the Affordable Care Act takes effect in January.

One notable exception: the office of 1st District Rep. G.K. Butterfield.

“The consensus amongst my team was to keep the same employer-sponsored coverage every other employee receives,” Butterfield said in a statement.

The Wilson County Democrat added that he instead had enrolled in the D.C. Health Link, the Obamacare exchange for the District of Columbia.

Members have some flexibility in deciding if their staff members could continue receiving health insurance benefits under the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program or they must enroll on the D.C. exchange.

A controversial Office of Personnel Management rule let members determine if individual staff members are considered “official” or “non-official,” said Bob Moffit, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation. Official members must enroll on the D.C. exchange, while non-official staff could continue under the federal benefits program.

“Staff in the leadership office and all congressional committee staff would be exempt and can stay on the federal employees program,” Moffit said. Other exempted employees who could remain on the federal benefits program include nonpartisan staff, such as those working for the Congressional Budget Office and the Library of Congress.

Thomas Doheny, spokesman for 2nd District Rep. Renee Elmers, a Republican, noted the latitude that members had in determining their staffs’ benefits.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., “exempted his entire staff from the exchanges, saying they don’t work for him,” Doheny said. “My boss, she hates Obamacare. She’s against it. [But] we’re all on the exchanges, including the congresswoman.”

“The only leader that we know that’s doing it is Harry Reid,” said Ed McDonald, chief of staff for Rep. Howard Coble, R-6th District, referring to members exempting staff from the Obamacare exchanges.

While members of Congress receive salaries that are too high to qualify for federal subsidies, some of their staff members do not.

Even so, President Obama ordered OPM to provide staffers with subsidies identical to the amount they had received under the federal benefits program, Moffit said.

Moffit questions Obama’s authority under the law to issue that order. “We argued that there was no legal foundation for the OPM to pay a subsidy to any non-employer plan,” Moffit said. Before the White House intervened, the OPM had concluded that it couldn’t offer any subsidy to staffers, Moffit added.

Even with the subsidies, some older staff members will pay much more out of pocket than they did under the federal employees’ program. CNN reported that monthly premiums for a 60-year-old on a plan offered by Blue Cross and Blue Shield would exceed $840 a month. The OPM subsidy maxes out at $426 monthly.

Chris Moyer, press secretary for Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., noted that there was some controversy over the employer contribution coming from minority Republicans in the Senate.

“There’s an effort by a small minority to exclude staffers and members from the employer contribution by [Sen.] David Vitter from Louisiana,” Moyer said.

Moyer said Hagan’s staff would be going onto the D.C. exchange. Hagan also announced she would enroll in the federal exchange that is operating in North Carolina. Members of Congress have the option of enrolling in the D.C. exchange or in the Obamacare exchange that operates in their home states.

McDonald of Coble’s office also noted that congressional staff members who work in district offices in North Carolina must enroll in the D.C. exchange. Those who live in North Carolina “can’t even buy their insurance through Blue Cross Blue Shield in North Carolina,” McDonald said.

“We’ll be shifting over to the exchanges, assuming that the exchange actually works,” said Jamie Bowers, a spokesman for 9th District GOP U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger. Bowers said staff members would be taking a financial hit by switching to the exchanges.

“People with families are taking a big hit, and older, experienced workers are taking a big hit,” Bowers said. “This is blowing up all over the place.”

Spokesmen for other members of the North Carolina delegation said that congressional staffs would enroll for coverage on the D.C. exchange, despite some concerns.

• “We’ll all be going on the exchanges,” said Rob Reed, press secretary for GOP Sen. Richard Burr. “I don’t think any of us are happy about it a bit.”

• Sara Howard, a spokeswoman for Rep. Walter Jones, R-3rd District, said everyone in the office would enroll in the D.C. exchange. “We’re still trying to figure out exactly how it will work,” she said.

• Jeff Butler, a spokesman for Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-10th, noted that some staffers whose spouses have employer-based insurance have said they would choose to get their coverage from their spouses rather than go into the D.C. exchange.

Spokesmen for Reps. David Price, D-4th, Virginia Foxx, R-5th, Mike McIntyre, D-7th, Richard Hudson, R-8th, Mel Watt, D-12th, and George Holding, R-13th, said all staff members would enroll on the D.C. exchange.

The office of 11th District Rep. Mark Meadows, a Republican, did not respond to requests for information about health coverage for Meadows’ staff.

Barry Smith (@Barry_Smith) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.