The “Obamacare Exemption” Canard

Since it is, along with a medical device tax, the feature of the Affordable Care Act that Republicans are most likely to fight for in a continuing resolution, it’s a good idea to understand David Vitter’s proposal to keep congressional staff and executive-branch political appointees from receiving a continuation of health care premium subsidies as they are forced to buy insurance on the Obamacare exchanges.

The demagoguery behind Vitter’s proposal is clear enough:

“These recent maneuverings inside the beltway are precisely why the American people rightly despise Congress,” Vitter said. “Perhaps if White House appointees and Congress have to live under these same Obamacare rules, things would be changed quickly for the better.”

It’s true that other folk obtaining insurance on the exchanges won’t receive employer subsidies. But what’s not true is that removing the subsidies would place the affected federal employees in the same boat as other Americans. Vitter’s targets are uniquely being forced by law out of employer-sponsored insurance thanks to an amendment offered to the Senate version of ACA by Republican Chuck Grassley (it’s generally thought Senate Democrats accepted the amendment assuming it would be removed in a House-Senate conference–which never occurred).

Most Americans in employer-sponsored health insurance plans will stay right where they are, though perhaps with enhanced benefits. A precious few will choose to drop out of employer plans and buy insurance on the exchanges; a precious few more will find their employers dropping plans either because they don’t want to meet minimum standards or because they choose to compensate their employees in other ways now that they can get health insurance on their own. Some small business will for the first time sponsor employees’ health insurance via the exchanges. But no one other than the legislative and executive-branch employees affected by Grassley’s capricious amendment will be categorically denied employer-sponsored insurance.

This may seem to be a tempest in a teapot for all but the relative privileged people directly affected (congressional employees with lower salaries would, if Vitter’s proposal were enacted, be eligible for tax subsidies just like anyone else buying policies on the exchanges). But master demagogue that he is, Ted Cruz has been arguing that the “Obamacare exemption” needs to be eliminated for all federal employees. That this “exemption” doesn’t actually exist seems to be beside the point.

UPDATE: Ted Cruz isn’t the only Republican solon trying to expand on this bogus point. Rand Paul has an op-ed at the Washington Times today arguing that Democratic congressional efforts to exempt themselves from Obamacare are all the proof you need that the law itself is worthless and should be repealed. So an effort to offset a unique, arbitrary and mandatory inclusion of a small group of federal employees in exchanges that are not designed to serve people with employer-sponsored insurance is somehow a reason for denying access to the exchanges for the millions of Americans who cannot otherwise obtain insurance! There’s some fine logic for you.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.