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Many in Congress avoiding health care exchanges

By Lisa Desjardins, CNN Capitol Hill reporter
updated 3:45 PM EST, Wed November 13, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Members of Congress will select their health care coverage starting this week
  • Most say they will participate in Obamacare exchanges
  • But many will opt out in favor of private plans or other options

Washington (CNN) -- For members of Congress, the Obamacare debate is getting personal.

This week, lawmakers can begin their sign-up process for health care, and a CNN survey shows that while most senators and representatives plan to participate in the Obamacare exchanges, a sizable group is walking away from the government-coordinated exchanges and instead getting their healthcare in the private marketplace.

The Chart: Who has signed up for Obamacare in Congress

Enrollment for the House and Senate opened Monday and ends in early December, forcing lawmakers to make two big decisions: Will they personally get coverage through an exchange -- either in Washington as part of their workplace or in their home state -- and if they sign on to the exchange as part of their job, will they take the thousands of dollars a year the federal government gives employees to help with premiums?

Of the 118 members of Congress who responded to CNN, the clear majority plan to get coverage on the exchange as members of Congress, taking the employer contribution that comes with it.

But nearly 20% of those responding indicated they would not go onto the exchanges. Some, like Rep. Allyson Schwartz, D-Pennsylvania, are on Medicare; a few others rely on pension plans from previous jobs.

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But many are choosing to stay out of the exchanges, making a politically sensitive decision that removes them from the process Congress created. Most are Republicans who see it as a statement about Obamacare and fiscal responsibility.

"She came to Congress to fight Obamacare, not to enroll in it," wrote a spokesman for Rep. Diane Black, R-Tennessee, who is going directly to the private market for her health care.

"He feels the taxpayers shouldn't have to shoulder those personal costs for him," explained a spokesman for Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-New Jersey, who is also heading into the private markets.

But it is not just Republicans.

"(He) declined the employer health-coverage (on the exchange) as part of his commitment to fiscal responsibility and saving taxpayer money," reads a statement the office Rep. Scott Peters, D-California, sent CNN. Peters will get health coverage through his wife's plan.

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The politics are tricky. If they stay in the exchange, they could be accused of backing Obamacare and taking federal money for their health care. But if they leave, they could be accused of not participating in the system Congress invented and, as part of the Affordable Care Act, decreed that lawmakers should personally experience.

Several swing-state and closely watched senators have found a possible political middle ground by joining an exchange as individuals, not as members of Congress. Under the current system, Congress essentially acts as a small business employer on the Washington exchange. Thus, all members of Congress who want coverage and federal contribution dollars through their job have to enroll on that one exchange.

But five senators are instead signing up as individuals through their home state, going through the exchange system but forgoing the federal dollars that would be attached if they signed up with their job in the D.C. exchange.

"I want to have the exact same experience and go through the same steps as other Alaskans when it comes to signing up for health care," wrote Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska.

Colorado Senator Michael Bennet is planning on doing the same in his state, as are fellow Democrats Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Republican John Hoeven of North Dakota.

No House members responded that they were moving to their state exchange.

One rare category of lawmakers consists of those who are signing up as members of Congress, going through the D.C. exchange, but who are nonetheless rejecting or returning the federal dollars that come with it.

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The office of Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Florida, told CNN, "The congressman will return the federal contribution money to the U.S. Treasury."

Same for Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyoming.

Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nevada, is still deciding exactly where he'll get his health care, but if he goes with a plan as a member of Congress, his office told CNN, he will donate to charity the thousands of dollars in premium help from the government.

Still unknown is whether Sen. David Vitter, R-Louisiana, who launched a fiery protest against the federal contributions to congressional health care plans, will take the money. His office told CNN that he does plan on entering the exchange as a member of Congress, but his staff did not respond to our repeated questions about whether he would take the contribution.

Members have until December 9 to decide if they want to get employer-backed coverage as part of their jobs.

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