Beth Cobert will soon hit the one-year mark as acting OPM director, the longest such interim status for anyone in that position since the agency was created by the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act out of the old Civil Service Commission. While she has drawn bipartisan praise in both the House and Senate and her nomination has cleared the Senate committee level, her confirmation is being held up by an issue that predates her arrival at OPM by two years. That involves a part of the Affordable Care Act requiring that members of Congress and their personal staffs had to leave the FEHB program as of 2014 and get their insurance coverage through that law’s exchange system. OPM interpreted the law as allowing them to enroll in a plan designed for small businesses and thus keep an employer contribution toward the premiums equivalent to what those under FEHB receive. However, Sen. David Vitter, R-La., has kept a hold on her nomination, arguing that the law was intended to disallow an employer contribution under any circumstance and that Congress does not qualify as a small business under the law. He has offered a bill to continue allowing only the affected congressional staffers to receive an employer share, but the dispute has proved intractable for three years. As acting director, Cobert is able to function in the same way as a confirmed director, although the agency IG’s office has raised a question regarding whether her decisions made since her formal nomination last fall might be subject to legal challenge. While Cobert has not launched major changes in personnel policies, that could call into question contracts issued in the wake of the thefts of personal information from OPM databases, for example. That issue ultimately would have to be decided in the courts—most likely not until after the change in administrations in January, however.
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