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The Gentleman from Verona Who is Calling Out the "Obamacare Exemption" Lie

Neon Tommy/Flickr

It is possibly the most cynically dishonest of all the claims being made against the Affordable Care Act: that members of Congress and their staff are being “exempted” from the law. In fact, almost the opposite is the case: Capitol Hill has, for purely political reasons, been roped into the law. Back when the law was being drafted, Sen. Chuck Grassley, the Iowa Republican, proposed an amendment requiring that members of Congress and their staff be required to get their coverage in the new “exchanges” being created by the law. This made little sense – the exchanges are intended for individuals without employer-provided health insurance and small businesses, not for people already covered by large employers. But Democrats went along with Grassley’s demand to deprive Republicans of a talking point. Only later did Congress confront the consequences of this politically motivated amendment: The law forced members and Hill staff to buy coverage in the exchanges, but did not provide for a way for their employer – the government – to continue paying the lion’s share of the cost, as most other large employers do. Hill staff were going to be stuck with vastly higher health insurance costs – that is, a big pay cut.

To fix this unanticipated consequence, the Obama administration finagled a workaround so that the federal government would continue picking up roughly the same proportion of the tab for Hill employees’ coverage, while still requiring them to buy coverage on the exchanges. Obamacare critics brazenly seized on this as a “carve-out” from the law. Leading the charge was the Wall Street Journal editorial page, which railed against Congress’ “ad-libbed decision, at the 11th hour and on the basis of no legal authority, to create a special exemption for themselves from the ObamaCare health coverage that everybody else is mandated to buy.” This is absurd – “everybody else” is not mandated to buy ObamaCare health coverage – tens of millions of people already covered by their employers are going to keep that coverage; the singular treatment of the Hill was the requirement that it give up its coverage and go into Obamacare.

I found this quite depressing – as much as I know to expect a hard conservative edge from the Journal editorial page, I also know that its Pulitzer-winning health care writer, Joseph Rago, knows the issue well enough to be aware that this “exemption” line is utter bunk, which makes its propagation far more depressing than if it were coming from true know-nothings.

However, my demoralization on this score has been somewhat lifted by a deus ex machina of sorts: one Richard D. Quinn, of Verona, N.J., who has now twice written letters to the Journal to call out their intellectually dishonest trouble-making for what it is. First came this:

The reference to "the rest of the country" in your editorial is silly. The so-called rest of us, the vast majority of Americans, aren't going to use the health-insurance exchanges in any way. Over 100 million Americans have employer-based coverage just like all federal employees, including Congress. They pay about 25% of the cost on average, just like federal-government employees. Private-sector employees, in most cases, aren't eligible to enroll via an exchange, and the requirement for Congress to do so was political game-playing.

Another nonsensical idea is the notion that insurance via a private company in an exchange will somehow be vastly different from the same company offering insurance coverage via an employer. That company in both cases is regulated by state and federal agencies. All this is much ado about nothing.

And after the Journal trotted out the “Carve-outs for Congress” again, Quinn fired off once more this week:

Enough already, it's time to move on to the important things. It may have been questionable after the fact to determine that continuation of the employer contribution for health benefits was justified, but forcing Congress and 11,000 employees into the exchanges was stupid to begin with.

The subsidy Congress and staff are receiving is exactly the same as what was provided for years before anyone heard of ObamaCare or of Barack Obama for that matter. It's the same employer premium contribution provided to a million employees of the federal government and, by the way, to tens of millions of other Americans with employer coverage who aren't forced to join an exchange plan.

Your editorials make it appear that Congress was granted some new subsidy its employees never had. That's not true. Why should 11,000 federal employees be punished for the stupidity of the politically motivated authors of the legislation?

I couldn’t have said it better. So struck was I by the acuity of Mr. Quinn in a sea of misinformation that I set out to learn more about him. It turns out that he is a 69-year-old retiree who, by his own description, “managed employee benefit plans for a Fortune 500 company for nearly 50 years and served on the employee benefit review task forces for three New Jersey governors.” Well, that would explain it: someone who actually knows what he is talking about. I tried to reach him, so that I could congratulate him on shedding a tiny glimmer of light into the dark echo chamber of conservative opinion, but, alas, to no avail.

So I’ll have to say it here: Wherever you are, Richard D. Quinn, keep it coming. And if Rupert’s minions stop running the letters, do let me know.

*Addendum, 6:30 p.m.: Further showing up the Journal's dishonesty on this score is Patrick Brennan, an assistant editor at the National Review, who penned this bracing fact-check of his fellow conservatives. Bravo, Mr. Brennan.