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Health-Care Bill Causes Confusion About Coverage for Congress

Asked about the reported 'drafting error,' a Capps aide says much of the legislation is 'subject to interpretation'

As part of the newly enacted federal health-care reform law, members of Congress and their personal staff will no longer be covered by the Federal Employee Health Benefits Plan, but will use state-based exchanges instead.

But a Congressional Research Service memo states that by leaving out a specific date for the transition to happen, Congress may have signed itself up to leave its insurance policy three weeks ago when President Barack Obama signed the bill into law.

The memo says that because of a “drafting error, it is unclear whether members of Congress and congressional staff who are currently participating in F.E.H.B.P. may be able to retain this coverage,” according to The New York Times.

The Federal Employee Health Benefits Plan covers about 8 million people, and the government generally contributes 72 percent of the overall weighted average or 75 percent of the total premium, according to the federal Office of Personnel Management.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, added the amendment that would require the switch from government insurance and mentioned a 2013 start date, National Public Radio reported. But the final legislation made no such mention of a start date, which has led to the confusion.

According to The New York Times, the transition would occur on the date of enactment unless otherwise specified — which would have been March 23, the date Obama signed the bill into law, setting off the most sweeping transformation of the U.S. health-care system in history.

“The confusion raises the inevitable question: If they did not know exactly what they were doing to themselves, did lawmakers who wrote and passed the bill fully grasp the details of how it would influence the lives of other Americans?” The Times article asked.

An aide in the office of Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, told Noozhawk on Wednesday that Capps was unable to comment and said that, as a rule, congressional policy aides are “not authorized to talk on the record.”

The aide said her understanding was that nothing would happen until 2014, adding that the intention of the amendment was to provide greater protections for everyone else and that noncongressional federal employees wouldn’t see any changes to their plans. It’s also not clear which state-based exchange they would use, as members and staff of the Senate and House have offices in Washington, D.C., and their home states.

“So much of the bill is subject to interpretation and rule-making,” the aide said.

Capps has long supported the health-care reform bill — in many, if not all, of its forms — and advocated for a public option and eliminating co-pays for preventive medical treatment.

In a September Q&A interview in Noozhawk, she answered our — and readers’ — questions about health care. A hot issue was whether elected officials voting on the legislation would exempt their own health care plan or receive the same coverage as everyone else.

“The health plans that cover all federal employees, including members of Congress, will be subject to the same rules and regulations that all other plans will have to comply with,” Capps responded.

In its final form, the 2,310-page bill makes no changes to federal employee plans beyond congressional members and staff. However, Grassley’s amendment as it appears on his Web site, in an earlier form, would include the president, vice president, members of Congress, political appointees and congressional staff. It was dubbed the “Health Reform Accountability Act.”

If members of Congress have been uninsured for the past three weeks, it’s unclear at this point what action — if any — would be taken.

In an NPR story on the memo, health-policy correspondent Julie Rovner said “a judge would obviously see the lack of a date as what it is, which is a mistake. And I think before it ever got to that point, Congress will almost certainly fix it in some kind of a technical change.”

On March 20, the House voted 219-212 to pass the Senate’s previously approved health-care measure. Capps voted for the bill, which was opposed by all 178 Republicans and 34 Democrats. Soon after, the House voted 220-211 to approve a companion bill making changes to the Senate legislation. All Republicans voted against that bill, as did 33 Democrats. The Senate later voted 56-43 to accept the House changes, with all Republicans opposed.

Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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