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Obamacare sign-up concerns congressional staff

By Lisa Desjardins, CNN Capitol Hill Reporter
updated 2:02 AM EST, Fri November 8, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Starting Monday, congressional staffers will use the Obamacare health care exchanges
  • Some staffers participated in two information sessions on Thursday
  • They are concerned about higher premiums, especially for older workers
  • Many also want information on insurance plans that exclude abortion

Washington (CNN) -- In the U.S. Capitol basement, an auditorium full of congressional staff grapples with the consequences of how their bosses upstairs wrote the Affordable Care Act.

Starting Monday, they will have to choose a health care plan.

"A lot of employees are planning to separate because of this," one man stood up and declared at the first-ever congressional orientation for Obamacare. By "separate," he meant quit. It was one of many sharp moments of concern at the two information sessions set up by House administrators Thursday.

Both were closed to the press, but CNN was able to watch on an in-house TV channel. The camera faced the stage, not the audience and staff members who spoke could only be heard, not seen in the broadcast. They did not identify themselves and as a result, we cannot name them.

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Rep. Darrell Issa, R-California, is the chairman of the House Government Oversight Committee. On October 31, Issa's committee issued a document subpoena to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius for documents and information related to HealthCare.gov. "I've lost my patience," Issa said to CNN's Wolf Blitzer in explaining the decision to use a subpoena. Issa also said his committee has sent a document subpoena to website contractor Optum/QSSI. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-California, is the chairman of the House Government Oversight Committee. On October 31, Issa's committee issued a document subpoena to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius for documents and information related to HealthCare.gov. "I've lost my patience," Issa said to CNN's Wolf Blitzer in explaining the decision to use a subpoena. Issa also said his committee has sent a document subpoena to website contractor Optum/QSSI.
Key players in the health care hearings
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Several expressed doubts and fears about leaving their familiar federal employees plan and switching to the exchange, including a little-known but potentially costly issue.

"I think the federal government needs to seriously look at whether it is contributing to age discrimination (by forcing staff onto the exchange)," one women said. "The monthly formula for older workers is a serious, serious hit," she went on. "In addition to what I'm paying now, it will be another $300 to $400 a month."

Under the federal employee health plan, premiums do not vary by age. That's possible because the federal benefits system includes millions of employees and negotiates with insurers for that massive group, spreading out the costs widely. But in the exchange, Congress acts as a small business and insurers view it more by individual health needs, charging different premiums for higher-risk staff, like older employees.

Example: Under one BlueCross BlueShield plan available to congressional staff, the premium for a 20-year-old is $262.48 a month, versus $842.41 a month for a 60-year-old. That's not unique to congressional workers. But it is new for them.

Compounding the "hit" they feel is how much Congress kicks in to help with the premium, its employer contribution. It maxes out at $426 a month. The Office of Personnel Management official told CNN that those two things result in much higher premiums for older workers in the exchange than they are paying now under the federal health plan. Of course it also means lower relative premiums for younger workers.

"You should look into that," one man said at Thursday's orientation.

The issues for congressional workers are not just financial.

Some staffers want to select a plan that excludes abortion, "but we've had difficulties figuring out (which one that is)," said one staffer in Thursday's first session. "Which plans are more pro-life?" asked another at the second session later in the day.

In response, insurance company representatives pointed to one multistate plan with BlueCross BlueShield and all eight plans offered by Aetna.

More than 100 plans in total are offered to congressional staff. Those forced into the exchange have just under a month to pick one, starting Monday when the enrollment window set by congressional administrators opens.

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