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House Passes Bill Changing Health Law Workweek Standard

By Melissa Attias, CQ Roll Call

January 8, 2014 -- One of Republicans' early efforts to weaken the 2010 health care law is on its way to the Senate after the House endorsed legislation last week that would change the statute's definition of full-time from a 30-hour to a 40-hour workweek.

The bill (HR 30), which would ease health coverage requirements for some employers, passed 252-172 with the support of all Republicans voting and 12 Democrats, despite a White House veto threat. Eighteen Democrats—seven of whom did not return this Congress—joined Republicans to advance a similar measure last year before it stalled in the Democratic-led Senate.

With Republicans now in control of both chambers, the House bill or a similar Senate measure (S 30) introduced by Maine Republican Susan Collins and Indiana Democrat Joe Donnelly are expected to be taken up. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said that he thinks there is "almost no chance" that the Senate won't be voting on the issue, despite Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates it would add billions to the deficit. The Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee is expected to hold a hearing on it Jan. 22, according to a spokeswoman.

The question will be whether Republicans can pick up enough Democratic defections to get the measure to President Barack Obama's desk. Patty Murray of Washington, the top Democrat on the HELP Committee, called the proposal unacceptable in a statement this week, and the administration said Obama would veto the measure because it "would shift costs to taxpayers, put workers' hours at risk, and disrupt health insurance coverage."

"I'm willing to work with anyone on commonsense changes that would make health care more affordable and expand access for families, but this costly, harmful Republican legislation—which even some conservatives have openly opposed—is a big step backwards for workers who need health care and economic security," Murray said.

A score released last week by CBO and the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) bolstered that argument, projecting that the legislation would raise budget deficits by $53.2 billion from fiscal 2015 to 2025. That's because the bill would decrease the number of employers who have to pay penalties under the employer mandate and lower the penalties for some businesses by raising the full-time workweek threshold.

The health law generally requires businesses with 50 or more full-time workers to provide health coverage or pay penalties. The requirement kicks in for employers with at least 100 full-time workers this year, expanding to those with at least 50 employees next year.

Changes in sources of workers' coverage would also contribute to the bill's cost. CBO and JCT estimated that about 1 million fewer people would receive employment-based coverage, between 500,000 and 1 million more people would be covered under Medicaid, the Children's Health Insurance Plan or the health law's insurance exchanges, and less than 500,000 people would join the ranks of the uninsured.

But proponents of the legislation, including big business lobbies, say the change is necessary to restore the traditional 40-hour workweek. In a letter announcing that votes on the bill may be included in its annual scorecard, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said the current 30-hour threshold encourages employers to reduce their workers' hours to avoid triggering the mandate.

"As a result, employees are losing wages and hours of work, and employers are losing the ability to offer jobs and structure their workforce in a way that best serves their business," wrote R. Bruce Josten, the chamber's executive vice president for government affairs.

Other supporters include the National Retail Federation, National Association of Manufacturers, American Hotel & Lodging Association, and American Benefits Council, as well as insurers. "This is a common sense, bipartisan solution that provides employers with flexibility to offer benefits and coverage that best meets the health and financial needs of their employees," Karen Ignagni, president and CEO of America's Health Insurance Plans, said in a statement.

Opponents counter that there is little evidence that employers are cutting workers' hours as a result of the 30-hour definition and that raising the threshold to 40 hours would actually be more harmful. Robert Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said in a blog post that 7 percent of U.S. employees work between 30 and 34 hours a week, compared to 44 percent who work 40 hours a week, with several percent more working between 40 and 44 hours per week.

"As a result, it's the Republican leaders' proposal that would weaken the traditional 40-hour work week by placing far more workers at risk that employers will cut their hours to push them below the threshold," Greenstein wrote.

The House bill, sponsored by Indiana Republican Todd Young, has six Democrats among its 150 cosponsors. West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin III and Donnelly are the two Democrats currently signed onto the Senate bill, which has 27 cosponsors.

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