Sunday Shows Push Myth That Congress Is Exempt From Obamacare

Media personalities on broadcast network Sunday shows advanced the right-wing myth that the Obama administration has given Congress a special exemption from the Affordable Care Act (ACA), ignoring that the decision fixed a problem that would have treated congressional employees differently from all other Americans.

Following right-wing media's efforts to portray an Office of Personnel Management (OPM) rule clarification as an “exemption” or “dispensation” to congressional staffers, The Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol appeared on the August 11 edition of Fox Broadcasting Co.'s Fox News Sunday and suggested that Congress was not “covered by the same rules as the rest of the country” with respect to the health care law:

On Meet the Press, CNN contributor Ana Navarro similarly focused on the decision, complaining of “strategic cut-outs” and claiming that the administration has “been making nothing but exceptions on this Obamacare”: 

NAVARRO: But I also think, you know, it's rather rich for the president to be throwing stones that way when what we've seen is an administration that has been making nothing but exceptions on this Obamacare whether it's for corporations or for congressional staff. So maybe he should talk about implementing the whole thing he passed and not doing these exceptions that I'm very disappointed Republicans and Democrats stayed quiet on the exceptions for the congressional staff that were made this last week. There should be more focus on well, if you passed it, live with it, instead of rather than making these very strategic cut-outs.  

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM), which oversees the health benefits of federal government employees, responded to the ACA's Grassley amendment with a rule clarification. The amendment requires members of Congress and their staffs to enter the exchanges that were otherwise intended for people without access to employer-based coverage. OPM's decision allows the government to contribute to insurance premiums for members of Congress and staffers moved to the ACA exchanges.

In the Health Affairs blog, health care expert Timothy Jost noted that "[f]ar from exempting Congress from ACA requirements, as some have reported, the amendment subjects members to a legal requirement that will apply to no other Americans."

Jost further explained that Congress would have no way to pay for their employees' coverage through the law because the exchanges were meant to provide access to health care for individuals and small businesses, and that staffers would not receive a tax credit to help pay for coverage because their salaries are generally above the limit for premium subsidies. This would, in effect, force them to pay the full price of their insurance for no reason.

In The Washington Post's Wonkblog, Ezra Klein took issue with calling Congress's unique situation a “special exemption.” He later wrote:

The Obama administration's compromise is to permit the federal government to contribute toward employee insurance on the exchanges, but to render those employees ineligible for any tax credits or subsidies.

“Members of Congress and their staff must go into the exchange,” said an administration official. “No ands, ifs, or buts. They will not be eligible in any way for subsidies or tax credits. But they don't lose their current employer contribution.”