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Is Congress getting special treatment on Obamacare?

By Lisa Desjardins, CNN Capitol Hill Reporter
updated 9:07 AM EST, Tue December 10, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Members of Congress and their staffs got an extension to sign up for Obamacare
  • The extension is so staff can enroll and also receive subsidies
  • Most House and Senate members and staffs must get insurance through Obamacare

Washington (CNN) -- Congress' tangled relationship with the Affordable Care Act entered another phase Monday, raising a new question about whether lawmakers are really experiencing the exchanges the way other Americans do.

Monday night was the deadline for members of Congress and the thousands of people who work on their staffs to sign up for the Obamacare exchanges, where they must go to get any job-related health benefits. But with technical problems popping up in the past few days, House administrators gave employees (including elected members) a safety net. If they were blocked by technical problems, staff members will still be able to sign up for another week.

Hence the question: Is that a special break for Congress?

"I don't think that's anything special," Dan Weiser, spokesman for the chief administrative officer of the House, told CNN on Monday. "Our employees face a deadline of midnight tonight, and if through no fault of their own they're unable to sign up, then they're being allowed to follow through on their signing up."

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Throughout the day Monday, a steady stream of staffers stopped by the House payroll and benefits office to check that their sign-up had in fact been verified. The workers asking questions and those answering them seemed at ease. There were no signs of stress or deadline panic as each worker sat down for the few-minute confirmation process.

"This notice confirms your application for employer-sponsored insurance offered by STAFF US House of Representatives was received and approved," read the short letters given to verified staff members and shown to CNN by several employees Monday.

CNN spoke with some two dozen workers who were checking their health care sign-up. None would allow their names to be used, saying they did not have authorization to speak to the media. But all of them -- Republicans and Democrats -- said they felt the potential deadline extension was appropriate.

The question of special treatment for Congress and Obamacare keeps rising like a bad cough, in large part because no other company or individual faces Congress' odd combination of requirements and circumstances.

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The exchanges were designed for small companies, with fewer than 50 workers, and individuals who don't have any employer coverage. Congress, on the other hand, employs some 20,000 people. Most companies that size negotiate their own employee plans and enrollment windows with health insurers.

But because Congress wanted to taste the medicine of Obamacare firsthand, the Affordable Care Act mandates that the only way members or staff can get health care benefits is by signing up on an exchange. That means they can still buy health insurance off the exchange, but if they do, they will not get the thousands of dollars in premium help that comes as a benefit of their jobs.

Because of this, Congress has an enrollment cutoff date, something that makes it different from the start. Outside of Congress, there is no enrollment cutoff date. Of course, the exchanges do have some deadlines: You must sign up by December 23 to get insurance coverage starting January 1, and by March 1, almost every American must have health care or be penalized.

But those deadlines are attached to specific events; there is no time that enrollment closes altogether.

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The Department of Health and Human Services confirmed that the exchanges allow people to sign up for health care year-round and that Congress is an exception.

Thus, only Congress has both a requirement to go on the exchanges to get employee health benefits and a firm enrollment cutoff date.

That cuttoff date was set up by the federal Office of Personnel Management and mirrors the sign-up dates for all federal workers. As problems bubbled up for congressional staffers, last week OPM's director gave the Senate and House discretion to help individuals who have tried to sign up but were blocked by technical problems.

Is that special treatment? CNN asked experts and members from both parties and could not find anyone who thought so.

"Nobody here felt this was anything special," said Weiser. "This is just the right thing to do."

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