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Congress has now officially departed Washington for a five-week summer break. As its last official action, the House for the 40th time voted to block implementation of the federal health law. The vote didn't attract a lot of attention. It was expected after all. Instead, what caused the stir was something that happened late last night to the personal health insurance of members of Congress and their staff. NPR's Julie Rovner has a report.
JULIE ROVNER, BYLINE: Back in 2010, when Congress passed the health law, Republicans basically dared its Democratic sponsors to require that members of Congress and about 11,000 of its staffers give up their federal health insurance coverage and join the new health exchanges starting in 2014. Democrats took the dare, writing it into the law. Only they forgot one importance piece, which was to specify whether those lawmakers and staff could take with them their employer contributions to that health insurance.
Right now, the federal government pays about 75 percent of the cost of worker's health insurance. The employee pays the other 25 percent. It prompted something of a bipartisan panic on Capitol Hill. Bradford Fitch runs the Congressional Management Foundation, a nonpartisan think thank that studies the workings of Congress.
BRADFORD FITCH: The question that was on the table was whether or not congressional staff, in essence, were going to be able to have any kind of reasonable health care or whether they would have to pay for it all themselves.
ROVNER: It was more than a minor concern for many members of Congress, says Fitch, and not just because it might cost them more out of their own pocket. They've been worried about key staff literally walking out the door.
FITCH: That it might lead to a brain drain, especially among senior staff who would be incentivized to retire at the end of the year.
ROVNER: Because if they retired, they could keep their federal health benefits. Enter President Obama, who in a private meeting with Senate Democrats earlier this week, promised he was personally involved in the effort to resolve the problem.
And then, last night, White House officials quietly let it be known that yes, next week the Office of Personnel Management will announce that members and staff will be able to keep their government insurance contributions when they buy their coverage on the health exchanges. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi pronounced herself pleased with the solution at her weekly news conference this morning.
REPRESENTATIVE NANCY PELOSI: It's - part of their compensation here is that they would have health insurance, and now they will, under the Affordable Care Act, thru the exchanges.
ROVNER: But not everyone thinks what the Administration is doing - or about to do - is within its authority.
ED HAISLMAIER: No one, so far, who's really looked at this sees a legal way for them to do this.
ROVNER: Ed Haislmaier is a senior research fellow with the Heritage Foundation and a co-author of a just released paper arguing that the administration can't fix the problem. Only Congress can. But there's legal and there's political.
HAISLMAIER: Obviously, if they were to fix their own problem but not somebody else's because there are many people with may different problems with the legislation. They would have a huge political blowback on that.
ROVNER: Haislmaier says in many ways the problem with the Congressional coverage provision mirrors other problems with the health law.
HAISLMAIER: The argument is well, it was badly written. Well, yes, but so was a lot of the rest of it as we're finding out. They say, well, it's unworkable the way it's written. Well, yeah, we're discovering that a lot of the rest of it is unworkable.
ROVNER: Just to be clear, members of Congress and their staff aren't getting special treatment when it comes to their health insurance. But they are definitely getting preference when it comes to fixing their own special glitch in the health law. Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.
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