WASHINGTON — The General Counsel of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) filed comments with the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), September 3, on a proposed regulation on health plans for members of Congress and their staff. The comments urged the OPM to comply with a longstanding policy against subsidizing federal employee plans that include elective abortions. The comments were signed by Anthony Picarello, USCCB associate general secretary and general counsel, and Michael Moses, associate general counsel.

Congress has long authorized federal contributions to health plans purchased by federal employees, including members of Congress and their staff, through the statute establishing the federal employees health benefits program (FEHBP). Under the Smith amendment, an appropriations rider which has been in place for nearly 30 years, none of those federal funds can be used to pay for a health plan that covers elective abortion. In 2010, the new health reform law provided that members of Congress and their staff may only be offered health plans on the newly created state health insurance exchanges.
The USCCB comments on the proposed regulation noted that that Smith amendment continues to apply, because the federal government’s employer subsidies for these plans are authorized only by the FEHBP statute and are governed by the same rules as for other federal employees. Changing the place where these employees must go to obtain their health plans does not affect the continued applicability of the Smith amendment, the comments said. A contrary policy, they added, would also contradict repeated assurances from President Obama and Administration officials that the health care reform law would not be used to weaken existing abortion policies or expand federal funding for abortion.
“The Administration cannot have it both ways,” the USCCB comments said. “If Congress has authorized federal contributions to exchange-participating health plans purchased by Members of Congress and congressional staff, as the Administration maintains – that is, if the provisions of the FEHBP statute pertaining to federal contributions apply to them, as the Proposed Rule insists – then the corresponding limitations set forth in the Smith amendment apply to those plans, just as they do to any other plan purchased by any other federal employee.”
The complete text of the comments is available at www.usccb.org/about/general-counsel/rulemaking/upload/2013-fehbp-comments.pdf.