For Congress, health care plans remain a notch above

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WASHINGTON — Trying to align lawmakers with the people they represent, Congress three years ago decided that when the new health care plan took effect, members would give up their platinum health benefits and enroll in the online marketplaces created for millions of other Americans.

In typical congressional fashion, however, things have not worked out exactly as advertised.

While many members of Congress are indeed signing up for health coverage through the District of Columbia exchange -- which was designated as the provider for all members — their experiences have been significantly better than those of average consumers in several respects, including more generous benefits packages, VIP customer service from insurers and the same government-subsidized premiums they've always enjoyed.

It's a far cry from the experience of millions of other Americans, who have been frustrated by a crash-prone federal website, policy cancellations and confusion over the new program.

Some lawmakers are avoiding President Barack Obama's health care law altogether by getting their health benefits elsewhere. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., qualifies for coverage as a veteran. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., gets insurance under her husband's plan.

More than a third of senators, and a quarter of House members, are 65 or older, making them eligible for Medicare.

A few Republicans have boycotted the exchanges on principle because they oppose the president's program. Others are embracing the chance to enroll — with all the potential difficulties — because doing so can give them fodder for their fight against the law.

House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, a staunch opponent of the program, posted online about his troubles signing up with the District of Columbia exchange. "Kept at it," Boehner wrote, after documenting the various error messages he encountered during the process.

Rep. Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., the 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee, told a local radio host last month that he was kicked off the website three times when he tried to sign up his family. After calling the help line, he was disconnected, he said. "I still can't get on," he said then.

But the griping, which has largely broken down along partisan lines, has served to mask the VIP treatment lawmakers have received.

Though most District of Columbia residents seeking coverage under the Affordable Care Act have 34 individual plans to choose from, lawmakers can pick from 112 "gold" plans. In order to more closely match the generous benefits package to which they are accustomed, lawmakers are treated as "small businesses" rather than individuals.

The four major insurers with plans available to the congressional pool are aggressively courting their business, providing glossy promotional materials with helpful comparisons of new and old options. Staff and lawmakers receive in-person counseling in the Capitol complex to assist with their questions. All four insurers offer dedicated hotlines exclusively for members of Congress.

Congressional aides insist that the briefings for lawmakers and staff are no different from what would be offered by other large employers. Richard Sorian, a spokesman for the district's exchange, said the agency was conducting the same enrollment sessions at the Capitol that it had elsewhere in the district.

But others counter that special accommodations have been made for lawmakers and their staff. Originally, a provision by Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, required all lawmakers and their staff to enroll in online exchanges, but over time the mandate was revised and watered down.

Instead of requiring participation, the rules now state that lawmakers and staff who wish to continue receiving subsidies to help pay for their premiums -- as much as 75 percent of the monthly cost -- should get insurance next year from DC Health Link, the district's exchange.

In another variation from the original Grassley proposal, the final regulations gave lawmakers the ability to exempt certain staff members. As a result, staffers who work for congressional committees or leadership offices may keep their old health plans, while those who work directly in a lawmaker's office are directed to the exchange.