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Congress health benefit costs will continue to be paid by taxpayers

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WASHINGTON (AP) - Under a forthcoming fix from the Obama administration, American taxpayers will continue paying for most of the health benefit costs for members of Congress and their aides who are being marshaled into new insurance exchanges.

Lawmakers and congressional staffers have been sounding the alarm that they could be forced to pay thousands more, picking up the tab themselves. In the past, the federal government chipped in about 75 percent. That sparked concerns that the best and the brightest might flee Capitol Hill rather than losing a benefit on which they and their families depend.

Under new regulations the Obama administration will release next week, the government will keep paying its share and that scenario will be averted, the White House said.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said it was important to resolve the issue before the August congressional recess because the exchanges open Oct. 1. She said her own staff had told her there could be a problem with "brain drain."

"They are a tremendous intellectual resource, people who could, shall we say, be better compensated financially outside" of government, Pelosi said wryly. "Happily they enjoy the psychic rewards of public service - at least for a while."

The latest hitch in the rollout of the health care law was actually prompted by an amendment from Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley that forced senators, representatives and congressional staffers to buy insurance through new exchanges, rather than the federal benefit system most government employees use. The idea was to force lawmakers backing the bill to have a personal stake in the outcome.

But until now, there was no clear mechanism for the government to contribute its part of employees' premiums through the exchanges.

The fix came at the request of both Democratic and Republican lawmakers, the White House said. But officials have declined to say how deeply Obama was involved.

"I just don't have details on the president's private meetings," White House spokesman Jay Carney said Thursday in response to senators' claims that Obama was personally working to resolve the dispute. "I can tell you that Congress wrote and passed the Affordable Care Act, and the law lays out details of how people will get insurance."

Lawmakers and staffers won't be eligible for tax credits that low-income Americans can get to purchase insurance through the exchanges, designed to get millions more Americans enrolled in health care. Obama will start getting his insurance through the exchanges, the White House official said, adding that the administration also supports requiring Cabinet secretaries and White House staff to enroll.

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