Hill Workers' Health Perk A Sticking Point In Spending Fight

House Republicans on Monday made the so-called Vitter Amendment one of their conditions to pass a spending bill. They describe it as an elimination of a special subsidy for Capitol Hill and executive branch staff. But a closer look shows it would essentially amount to a massive pay cut.

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Among the things House Republicans are asking for in the ongoing spending battle is an elimination of health benefits for members of Congress and their staff. As the law now stands, congressional staff are required to buy their health insurance on the Affordable Care Act exchanges and the federal government will help pay for their plans.

House Republicans say that kind of assistance amounts to a special subsidy. But as NPR's Ailsa Chang reports, taking away the health benefit would amount to a large pay cut.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: This latest maneuver by House Republicans to wipe out her health benefits might be enough to make Rochelle Dornatt walk away from her job after 32 years on Capitol Hill. She's the chief of staff to Democrat Sam Farr of California. And she says she feels like she's being penalized for her public service.

ROCHELLE DORNATT: I really resent being used as a pawn in this political game.

CHANG: If the measure passes, Dornatt must retire by December 31st to retain her current health benefits for the rest of her life. Right now, the federal government contributes more than $5,000 a year to her health plan. Dornatt is 58 and says, when she budgeted out the next several years of her life, she had assumed that money would always be there.

DORNATT: I have hip problems and I have knee problems, so I will probably need hip replacements and knee replacements at some point when I'm really old. And so, I've planned my healthcare around that.

CHANG: Republicans have characterized congressional staffers like Dornatt as recipients of a generous government handout no other American enjoys. So, Senator David Vitter of Louisiana and other lawmakers want to take this so-called handout away. He says their legislation is about fairness; about treating everyone alike who's buying a health plan on the Obamacare exchanges.

SENATOR DAVID VITTER: This special congressional subsidy is unique. Nobody at that income level can get this sort of bailout or subsidy going to the exchange.

CHANG: Actually, let's back up. There are a few things Vitter and other Republicans are not mentioning. Back when Congress was debating the Affordable Care Act, Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa got an amendment through that forced members of Congress and their staff to buy their health insurance on the exchanges. It was a way to make Congress put their bodies where their mouths were. And Republicans were also hoping it might make some Democrats drop their support for the healthcare law altogether.

The amendment passed with the rest of the law. And Stan Dorn, of the Urban Institute, says that set up a disparity.

STAN DORN: If you want to talk about people being treated differently, the main different treatment here is that members of Congress and their staff are the only ones in the country who are being forced to go into the exchange.

CHANG: The vast majority of people who are buying their healthcare on the exchange are people who don't get employer-provided insurance. But the Obama administration decided Capitol Hill staffers who were forced onto the exchanges shouldn't have to lose their health benefits. That would be a huge pay cut. So the administration decided it would give the same amount of money that staff members currently get for healthcare and let them use it on the exchange instead.

Dorn says that was a way to treat Hill staffers the same as most other workers in the country, not better.

DORN: The rest of the federal government provides health insurance to its workers. All large companies, practically speaking, provide insurance to their workers. How are you going to be able to attract and retain good employees?

CHANG: Rochelle Dornatt says three other people in her office might also retire early if the proposal passes.

Ailsa Chang, NPR News, the Capitol.

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