Andy Harris could always refuse subsidized insurance

But his congressional staff might feel differently about it

October 09, 2013|Dan Rodricks

For the sake of ideological balance — and for entertainment purposes — you have to hand it to Andy Harris. He's the lone Maryland Republican in Congress, an extreme conservative counterweight to the moderate-to-liberal Democrats who hold the rest of the state's seats in the House and Senate. And he's a Hopkins-educated doctor who, with no trace of apology or irony, opposes the expansion of medical care to millions of uninsured Americans — up to 70,000 of them in his own district.

In fact, last we checked with the U.S. Census Bureau, two of the counties in the 1st District that Harris represents had the highest percentages of Marylanders without health insurance: Caroline, with about 17 percent, and Somerset, at about 20 percent. Those are figures from 2009, when Maryland's percentage of uninsured was about 13 percent. It has come down a bit since then and, hopefully, the number will fall further as more people buy a plan through the Affordable Care Act.

Andy Harris, of course, isn't buying anything.

"The truth," he tweeted the other day, "is that Obamacare is a disaster that will cripple Maryland businesses and the Maryland economy."

That's the kind of extreme assertion we hear all the time from hyperbole-prone tea party Republicans. Harris is pretty much one of them, though he's not always identified as such. He rode into office in 2010 on the tea party wave, committed to repealing Obamacare. And he certainly sounded like a tea party guy again last week when he decided to harp on so-called "gold" health benefits that he claims members of Congress will get under an exemption from Obamacare.

(Attention, readers: I am about to try and explain the "golden exemption." The explanation might give you a headache, so if there's something you take prophylactically for that, go ahead and do it now. I'll wait right here.)

So — about the "golden exemption."

Members of Congress and their staffs get health insurance through the Federal Employees Health Benefits (FEHB) program. In fact, it was Andy Harris who accidentally drew national attention to this fact after he was first elected to the House.

In November 2010, while attending an orientation session for freshman representatives, he famously raised his hand to ask about what he saw as a flaw — his congressional health benefits didn't commence until 28 days after his January swearing-in. Harris then asked if he could buy insurance from the government to cover the gap.

This story was first reported by Politico, which noted the irony (or hypocrisy) of an anti-Obamacare politician whining about a gap in his government-subsidized insurance plan.

Harris, who apparently never worked for a company that delayed benefits to a new hire for 60 to 90 days, said through a spokesman that he was merely pointing out the inefficiency of a government program.

OK, let's push up the clock: Obamacare is the law of the land, but the law includes a bizarre amendment — proposed by a Republican senator and strangely accepted by Democrats — to force members of Congress and their staffs to give up their FEHB and get their insurance, instead, through one of those Obamacare exchanges.

There was a point to this amendment, something about making members of Congress and their staffers go through the exchanges just like everybody else. Which is wonderful, except that, under Obamacare, "everybody else" — or almost everybody else — gets to keep the insurance they have through their employers.

Obamacare was supposed to be for the uninsured, with subsidies for some, based on their income. It wasn't meant to force large employers — in this case, Congress — to dump benefits and send their workers into the exchanges.

The Obama administration, through the Office of Personnel Management, tried to clear this up with a memo. The memo said members of Congress and eligible staffers could purchase health insurance through an exchange based in the District of Columbia; the government would continue to subsidize their plans. The memo directs staffers to choose a "gold" plan because, OPM said Wednesday, that would be most comparable to the one they have now.

Last week, just before the budget impasse that led to the partial shutdown of the federal government, Republicans raised this issue, claiming that Congress was getting an "outrageous exemption." Andy Harris joined in, calling on colleagues to "end the taxpayer subsidy of their golden health care benefit." It's the lead item on Harris' website.

With the shutdown, I didn't get to speak to Harris' staff to hear how they felt about the boss trying to mess with their benefits. A request to speak with Harris went unanswered. Too bad. I wanted to bring to his attention a key line from the OPM memo:

"Nothing in this rule or law prevents a member of Congress or designated congressional staff from declining a government contribution for him or herself by choosing a different option for their health insurance coverage."

There you go. There's the answer: If you're a member of Congress opposed to government-subsidized health insurance, don't take it.

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

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