Marco Rubio defends $10k subsidy after Obamacare signup

12/16/2013 5:08 PM

12/17/2013 7:30 AM

Though a staunch Obamacare critic, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio has enrolled his family in one of its health plans and will accept a $10,000 federal subsidy that some fellow Republicans rejected as a “special deal.”

Rubio on Monday defended his decision to accept the annual subsidy, and said it wasn’t that special.

“It’s an [employer] contribution,” Rubio said. “It’s available to every employee of the federal government.”

Rubio pointed out that, as a member of Congress, he is required to enroll in an Affordable Care Act plan if he wants health insurance through his employer, the federal government.

But while Rubio’s position is technically correct — he is receiving a type of insurance contribution from his employer that is common in government and the private sector — his decision to accept the subsidy poses political risks for the 2016 GOP presidential hopeful.

Rubio’s decision has drawn fire from Democrats, who charge him with hypocrisy, and puts him at odds with some Republicans who refuse to accept the federal contribution money in a protest of the Affordable Care Act.

Others have shied away from the subsidy to insulate themselves from political attacks that Congress enjoys a special perk under Obamacare.

So far, about 10 other senators and a handful of U.S. House members have rejected or avoided receiving the annual subsidy.

Rubio said he would vote to do away with the subsidy if it applied to everyone equally. Until then, he said, he is keeping the money.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., didn’t want to wait that long. He made a big deal last week when he announced he was enrolling in Obamacare but rejecting the employer contribution.

“I don’t think members of Congress should get a special deal,” Graham said in a press release. “Obamacare is being pushed on the American people, and we should live under it just like everyone else.”

But despite Graham’s claim that Congress is getting special treatment, fact-checking analysts say that is not true.

Here’s why: Congress went out of its way to force itself and its staffers who want to keep their employer-backed insurance to buy healthcare plans on the individual market through what are called “exchanges,” which are online marketplaces listing plans and costs.

Normally, those who get insurance through their employer (the federal government, in Rubio’s case) have no reason to shop on the individual health-insurance market.

But Republicans in 2010 wanted to show Democrats that the law they passed was bad and would be painful. So Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley proposed an amendment to embarrass Democrats by essentially requiring members of Congress and their staffs to sign up through Obamacare’s exchanges — even though they were supposed to be reserved for the individual market.

Democrats, however, unexpectedly accepted the amendment, and it became law.

The provision started rattling nerves last summer when staffers and members of Congress realized that, under one interpretation, the mandate could cause them to lose the employer contribution for their insurance — something no other class of workers faces outside Congress.

On Aug. 7, the Obama administration issued a proposed rule that said congressional members and staff could continue to receive their subsidy-contributions.

Conservative groups bashed the move as an overreach by Obama, and some called on members of Congress to reject receiving the subsidy.

Before Obamacare, Rubio and many other members of Congress and their staffs had health insurance administered by the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program. The federal government paid a yearly contribution of $10,048.76 for families and $4,966.80 for individuals, according to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.

With the passage of Obamacare, everyday consumers who shop on the individual health-insurance market can qualify for subsidies as well.

Those earning less than four times the poverty level — $94,200 for a family of four, for instance — get subsidies for buying health insurance on the individual market. The less people earn, the more in subsidies they get.

So if someone earned the equivalent of a congressman’s salary of $174,000, didn’t have employer insurance and bought individual-market insurance, he would need a family of 12 to qualify for a subsidy. Rubio has six family members.

There are two ways to look at the situation that congressional members and staffers are in when it comes to Obamacare.

On one hand, they shouldn’t be in the individual-market exchanges because they have employer health insurance, so the subsidies they get are really more like employer contributions.

On the other hand, since they work for the government, they are still paid by taxpayers who subsidize their insurance to a greater degree than for all the others in the individual market.

After Rubio enrolled in Obamacare, former Gov. Charlie Crist took a shot at him. Crist was defeated by Rubio in the 2010 Senate race, and is now running for his old job against Republican Gov. Rick Scott in 2014.

“Sen. Marco Rubio’s endorsement of Obamacare for his own family should end the rhetoric coming from Gov. Rick Scott and other tea party groups,” Crist said in a statement Friday.

“As many news outlets reported recently, in addition to enrolling his family through the new exchange, Rubio is also receiving federal subsidies — this is good news for his family,” Crist said.

Rubio responded Monday: “I don’t endorse Obamacare. I much rather would have a vibrant private market where individuals like myself and others can buy health insurance from any company that will sell it to us.”

Rubio, however, did little to take on the private-insurance market when he was a state legislator. He served as Florida House speaker in 2007 and 2008, Crist’s first two years as governor, and received free health insurance paid by state taxpayers along with almost all other legislators.

Rubio and Crist initially clashed behind the scenes over the then-governor’s effort to make insurance more affordable by removing government mandates, thereby offering people stripped-down health plans at a stripped-down price. Rubio fought for an exchange to help small businesses offer health insurance.

Both plans passed together in 2008. Neither fared well.

Florida has remained one of the least-insured states in the nation. Scott and the GOP-led Legislature have refused to set up a Florida-based insurance exchange.

So the only place for Rubio to keep his employer-supported health insurance is through the Washington, D.C., exchange, which entitles him to the employer subsidy.

Another Florida politician, U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Jupiter, announced he would return his subsidy to the U.S. treasury.

Five other senators — four of them Democrats — are avoiding the issue by signing up through Obamacare exchanges in their states, according to CNN. Sen. Graham, though, signed up in D.C. and refused his subsidy, his office said.

Rubio said the problem could be solved if Democrats who control the Senate passed a bill by Louisiana Republican David Vitter to eliminate the subsidy-contributions.

Asked why he didn’t follow the lead of others who voluntary gave up the money, Rubio said: “Well, again, I’m going to comply with the laws the way they’re written right now. If they’re prepared to change the law for everyone, I’ll vote for that.”

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