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Senator to block confirmation of OPM director

Jul. 31, 2013 - 08:47PM   |  
By SEAN REILLY   |   Comments
Sean Archuleta MWM 20130716
Katherine Archuleta's nomination to be director of the Office of Personnel Management was approved by a Senate committee Wednesday, but a hold on the Senate's final vote is expected. (Mike Morones / Staff)

A Republican senator plans to block Katherine Archuleta’s nomination to head the Office of Personnel Management until OPM clarifies next year’s health coverage for congressional staffers.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee approved Archuleta’s nomination on a 6-4 vote Wednesday. But Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, the panel’s top GOP member, said beforehand that he will stop a final confirmation vote by the full Senate until OPM renders a decision on health insurance for congressional staff.

Although Coburn did not elaborate, he was apparently referring to uncertainty over how the 2010 Affordable Care Act — often dubbed “Obamacare” — will affect coverage for thousands of congressional aides.

“There’s no reason we should vote on this position until we know what the administration’s position is,” Coburn said. “I plan on holding that nomination until we can get an answer, so that we can either legislate or do something for the very valuable staff that we have.”

Traditionally, both lawmakers and staffers have gotten coverage through the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program (FEHBP). But under a provision in the act inserted by Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, members of Congress and their personal staffs will have to buy coverage from state-based insurance exchanges that are supposed to be up and running by the beginning of January, according to a 2010 Congressional Research Service report.

It’s unclear whether the same requirements will apply to staffers employed by congressional committees and House and Senate leadership offices, or whether current members of Congress and their staffs can be “grandfathered” into FEHBP, the report said.

And for those who do have to buy insurance on the state exchanges, the law does not say whether the government will continue to cover almost 75 percent of the premium cost, as it does for FEHBP participants. If not, they could face thousands of dollars in extra yearly expense.

OPM is scheduled to issue revised regulations on FEHBP coverage for members of Congress and staff in October, according to a semiannual rulemaking agenda posted online.

That agenda does not detail what issues will be addressed in the revised regulations, and an OPM spokesman could not immediately provide additional information. A Coburn spokesman did not reply to email and voice mail messages seeking clarification on the senator’s concerns.

President Obama nominated Archuleta for the job of OPM director two months ago to replace John Berry, now in line to become ambassador to Australia. In the interim, OPM is being led by General Counsel Elaine Kaplan, who is awaiting confirmation for a judgeship on the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.

In other business Wednesday, the Senate committee approved on a voice vote the nomination of John Thompson to head the Census Bureau. Thompson, who was also nominated in May, is a former Census Bureau employee who now heads the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.

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