Times-Union readers want to know:
Is it true that Congress has passed a bill that exempts House and Senate members from buying health insurance like all us regular Americans will be required to do next year?
Such claims arose in early 2010, when different health care bills were still being debated, notes FactCheck.org, a nonpartisan fact- finding project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. At the time, Republicans claimed that Americans, except for members of Congress, would be forced into the government-run "public option" (this proposed federal insurance agency that would compete with private companies did not become part of the bill that became law as the Affordable Care Act), or exchanges to be set up by the states (which are part of the law).
The bill-tracking database of the Library of Congress, thomas.gov, does not show any bill that exempts Congress and its staffs. In fact, FactCheck.org points out, Congress members and their staffs face a little stronger requirement that most Americans don't have to meet.
Under the health care law, Congress' insurance coverage will switch from the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program to the health exchanges. Under the FEHBP, federal employees can choose from a range of health plans. None of these plans is free, an article in Forbes magazine notes; they are private policies that have premiums, deductibles and co-pays.
The health exchanges will be for the uninsured, small companies and individuals who buy their own coverage. But they will also be for members of Congress and their staffs, who would be the only employees of a large employer in the exchanges.
But here's the thing: When Americans are required have insurance in 2014, they can get it from their employers, or from the state- run exchanges. But Congress is required by law to buy only from the exchanges.
The law's final language, written by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., says: "the only health plans that the Federal Government may make available to Members of Congress and congressional staff with respect to their service as a Member of Congress or congressional staff shall be health plans that are - (I) created under this Act (or an amendment made by this Act); or (II) offered through an Exchange established under this Act."
Congressional staff is defined as full-time and part-time employees employed by a member of Congress.
The viral email probably originated with several conservative pundits, including Sean Hannity, who said on March 24, 2010, that Congress and their staffs were exempt, according to Forbes magazine.
In addition, an April 24 Politico article said lawmakers were holding secret talks to change the requirement, FactCheck.org reported. A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D- Nev., denied that.
And Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman of California responded to Politico that lawmakers and their staffs will indeed get insurance through the exchanges.
FactCheck.org contacted the Office of Personnel Management, which administers the FEHBP, and received this response: "Members of Congress will not receive anything that is not available to the public. The law doesn't allow them to get insurance from FEHB, they are going to get insurance on the market place, just like uninsured individuals and small businesses."
It sure looks as if that's the case since nothing exempts Congress members and their staffs from buying insurance, or paying a fine - the same mandates faced by everyone else.
The health care law does provide a few exemptions from the requirement to have insurance, but only for those who earn too little to file taxes, those with financial hardships, those who can't find affordable coverage and some religious groups that qualify for Social Security exemptions.Carole Fader: (904) 359- 4635FACT CHECKWant something checked out? If you see or hear about something that needs a Fact Check, e-mail [email protected]